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Mediterranean Diet: More Than Olive Oil

Trichopoulos says there is no single component of the Mediterranean diet that holds the key to longer life. Though the mantra of Mediterranean eating could be "olive oil good, saturated fats bad," there is more to it than that.

"In this case, the total is better than the sum of the parts," he says. "You can't point to one thing and say that is what does it."

People who follow traditional Mediterranean diets:

  • Eat mostly plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Eat fish often but eat other animal-based foods such as red meat, poultry, and dairy sparingly.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation -- no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. While many believe that red wine offers health advantages over other forms of alcohol, Trichopoulos says that is still not clear. One drink equals 1.5 ounces of liquor (whiskey, gin, vodka, etc.), 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.
  • Don't limit fat consumption, as long as fats are derived from plants, not animals, and are not overly refined. Trichopoulos says olive oil is the best fat, but canola and soybean oils are also good.

Trichopoulos says the current mania for low-carbohydrate eating in the U.S. incorporates some elements of Mediterranean eating but not others.

"Americans tend to go to extremes when it comes to eating, and right now they hate carbohydrates and love protein," he says. "Lowering carbohydrates is probably a good thing, but too much meat-based protein is not."

Nutrition researcher Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, is a strong proponent of Mediterranean eating. But she worries that people will lose sight of the fact that there is more to good health than what you eat.

"Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese," she says. "If everyone adopted this diet but did not change anything else, it is unlikely that they would reap the benefits."

In other words, getting regular exercise and limiting calories, no matter what form they come in, is just as important as following a particular diet.

"There is no simple fix," she says. "You really have to think about the whole package. Not just what you are eating, but how much you are eating and whether you are moving. There are no shortcuts to good health."

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