Let’s just all move to Mykonos already. The healthy eating habits of Mediterranean communities have long been hailed as beneficial across the board, from cutting your risk of obesity by half, reducing incidences of heart disease and helping to improve bone and muscle mass in postmenopausal women. The centuries old Mediterranean diet is even officially inscribed by UNESCO as a tradition of ‘intangible cultural heritage’, with the cookery skills and knowledge, social exchange and seasonal rhythms associated with it promoting mutual and intercultural respect, hospitality and craftsmanship as well as health. Speaking of health, experts have recently identified yet another bonus of basing your meals around olive oil, a diverse mix of vegetables and fruit, fish and wholegrains, and keeping meat consumption to a minimum.
A study published in the journal Frontiers of Nutrition has identified that, of a group 20 primates, split into two groups and fed either a Western style diet of a Mediterranean diet for 30 months, the Mediterranean diet group showed a seven per cent increase in healthy gut bacteria, compared to 0.5 per cent in the Western diet group (every little helps).
Both diets came in at the same number of calories, but the Mediterranean diet was based on fish, olive oil, eggs, wheat and bean flours, vegetable juice, fruit puree, butter and sucrose, while the Western diet consisted heavily of beef, lard, butter, eggs, casein, high fructose corn syrup, dextrin (a wheat starch), lactalbumin (a whey protein), cholesterol and sucrose. While there were some commonalities between the two diets, randomly selected faecal samples showed that the Mediterranean diet group had increased levels of the gut bacteria Lactobacillus in particular, with the higher levels of complex carbohydrates and prebiotics in the diet also thought to foster greater gut microbe diversity.
The study’s authors also noted that the Mediterranean diet’s higher levels of omega-3 fats could contribute to the diet’s positive effect on the microbiome , as these healthy fats are known to increase the population of lactic acid bacteria in the gut. On the other hand, researchers pointed out that the Western diet has been shown to reduce levels of Lactobacillus in the gut, and that the “gut microbiome induced by western-style diets have been shown to play causal role in several gut-related diseases including adiposity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic syndromes”.
This isn’t the first study to highlight the healthy gut promoting potential of the Mediterranean diet- a paper published last year in the BMJ recognised that a high adherence to a plant-food rich Mediterranean diet among 153 Italian participants was associated with “beneficial microbiome-related metabolomic profiles” (i.e, a more diverse good bacteria profile).
Dr Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts diet is based around the principles of the Mediterranean diet, with an emphasis on increasing antioxidant and polyphenol intake by consuming a rainbow of fruit and veg and olive oil, a focus on eating and drinking full fat dairy products to enhance the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and replacing starchy, sugary cereals for the likes of eggs and nuts for the benefit of both the microbiome and avoiding weight gain and insulin resistance.
There’s still a lot to learn about the hordes of healthy bacteria living in our gut and how they play a part in our overall health and longevity, but a slosh of olive oil, dollop of full fat tzatziki and the odd glass of red wine seems like a good place to start *books one way flight to Greece*.