The Mediterranean diet – characterised by olive oil, fresh vegetables and whole grains – is hailed as a means to protect against heart disease, cancer, and a variety of other ailments. The value of this diet has been so strongly asserted that researchers are now investigating what specific aspects of the Mediterranean diet confers these health benefits. Here Senior Editor for BMC Medicine Claire Barnard speaks to three researchers in diet and health – Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, Dariush Mozaffarian, and Antonia Trichopoulou – to find out just what the Mediterranean diet entails, methods to measure its effects, and how we can reap some of its health benefits. More about the Mediterranean diet can be found in a recent Forum article in BMC Medicine from Martinez-Gonzalez, Mozaffarian, Trichopoulou and colleagues. A full transcript of this podcast can be viewed here.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the Mediterranean diet conveys protection against coronary heart disease and thrombotic stroke, and compelling […] evidence that it conveys protection against some forms of cancer”
Antonia Trichopoulou, University of Athens
Antonia Trichopoulou is Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Nutrition at the University of Athens in Greece, where she is also a professor. Here she explores the numerous health benefits studies have revealed are associated with the Mediterranean diet. Receiving her medical training from the University of Athens, Greece, Trichopoulou went on to obtain a PhD in nutrition and biochemistry and has since dedicated her career to public health nutrition. She was appointed Professor of Nutrition and Biochemistry in the National School of Public Heath, Greece, and has served on numerous public health nutrition committees for the World Health Organization and the European Union. Trichopoulou also lead the creation of the non-profit organisation, the Hellenic Health Foundation.
Whilst the health benefits of Mediterranean are clear, there is still discussion over what precisely constitutes a Mediterranean diet, as explained by Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, Professor and Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Navarra, Spain.
“Most definitions of Mediterranean diet include cereals, but nowadays we have highly refined cereals and we know that these highly refined cereals can be detrimental for diabetes and cardiovascular health”
Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, University of Navarra
Martinez-Gonzalez leads one of several initiatives that forms part of the PREDIMED interventional study for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. He received his medical training at Granada University, Spain, and went on to specialise in cardiology, before returning to Granada University to obtain a PhD in epidemiology and a Masters in public health.
The debate around what constitutes a Mediterranean diet feeds into research that aims to quantify which elements of the diet have the greatest impact on positive health outcomes. Martinez-Gonzalez discusses how this can be achieved from both epidemiological and interventional standpoints. Once the evidence basis is there, the next challenge arises in translating these findings to public health policies and ensuring the correct aspects are emphasised, as Dariush Mozaffarian explains.
“Most of our dietary focus in terms of policy has been on reducing the bad stuff, initially focusing on lowering saturated fat and not enough on increasing the good stuff.”
Dariush Mozaffarian, Tufts University
Mozaffarian is Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, USA, prior to which he was an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, USA. Trained as a cardiologist and epidemiologist, his research has focused on the effects of lifestyle and diet on cardiometabolic health and disease, as well as the effectiveness of policies to improve diet and reduce disease risk. In this podcast, Mozaffarian takes the discussion from the level of public policy back down to the individual, highlighting what steps a person can take to attain a healthy diet.
For more on what the Mediterranean diet, how it fits in the global spectrum of diets, and how we can measure its benefits, read this Forum article in BMC Medicine.