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Is the Mediterranean diet good for gut health?

Feature, Healthy Eating | September 14, 2020

A smiling woman sitting down to eat a healthy green salad.
Is the Mediterranean diet good for gut health? Featured Image

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied diets in the world. It is ranked as being healthy, enjoyable, and most importantly, one of the easiest to sustain.

The Mediterranean diet is not a fad diet doesn’t make empty promises with a long list of foods or food groups you must avoid… rather, it’s a healthy eating pattern focusing on many fresh whole foods and variety, adding foods in without restrictions.

However, I must disclose, the Mediterranean eating pattern does not mean we are on an all-inclusive getaway with all the pasta, pizza, and Italian wine we want! But it does mean enjoying fresh whole foods and living a more laidback healthful lifestyle. And the bonus? We can do all of this with many health benefits AND positively impact our gut at the same time!

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest, most enjoyable and easiest to sustain. Work with a registered dietitian with Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta to get started.

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is based around the foods available in and around the Mediterranean Sea including Italy, France, and Spain.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most widely studied diets in the world and has shown to have many health benefits:

  • Reducing the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Promoting healthy aging and preventing premature aging by improving cognition, lowering frailty, and lowering inflammatory markers associated with age related chronic disease
  • Reducing inflammation in the body
  • Improving important markers for health

In our very busy “Westernized” society, we often prioritize things like work over our basic needs, including food, sleep, and physical activity. We choose foods out of convenience resulting in excess consumption of processed and packaged foods. On the other hand, the Mediterranean lifestyle is more focused on slow eating and living. Preparing meals at home and cooking from scratch choosing fresh whole foods. The Mediterranean diet is not only about what you eat, but how you eat, enjoying the variety of foods of the Mediterranean diet with family and friends, in a relaxed, distraction free setting.

Western Diet vs. Mediterranean Diet

Foods / Nutrients  Fruits &  Veggies   Vitamins  &  Minerals   Added  Sugars   Grains  Fibre  Saturated  Fat           Sodium  Plant-  based  foods  Protein
 Western Diet  Low  Low  High  High in ultra processed  grains  Inadequate  High  High  Low   High fat     and          processed   meats
 Mediterranean  Diet  High  High  Low  High in  whole,  unprocessed  grains  High  Low, high  in healthy  fats  Low  High in  foods like  beans,  lentils,  chickpeas,  nuts,  seeds   Fish and
seafoodPlant-      based  proteins

 

The Mediterranean lifestyle and culture are very much part of the health benefits surrounding the Mediterranean diet. We know many positive influences on gut health revolve around this idea of more physical activity, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep every night. The Mediterranean lifestyle focuses on living a more relaxed and healthful lifestyle.

Why is the Mediterranean Diet good for your gut?

Certain nutrients key to a healthy gut are found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes variety in the diet. Existing research indicates variety in the food we eat results in favourable outcomes in the gut, including our gut microbiota – the unique collection of many species of trillions of bacteria living in our gut, crucial for our health and wellbeing.

Fibre

The most important nutrient of abundance for the gut in the Mediterranean diet is fibre! I think we all know there are a lot of great health benefits associated with fibre. However, most people do not meet their daily fibre requirements in their diet.

Fibre moves through the digestive tract undigested to reach the colon where gut bacteria can break it down and use it to fuel and produce important compounds. Like, short chain-fatty acids.

These compounds have:

  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • Help to improve immunity
  • Play a role in gut integrity
  • Provide us with energy
  • Help regulate critical functions in the colon

Fibre is also associated with keeping bowel movements regular, and other health benefits like lowering blood cholesterol and helping to control blood sugars.

Healthy Fats

Fats often have a bad reputation, but as we’ve learned over time, healthy fats have a lot of important health benefits. The Mediterranean diet focuses on healthy fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and especially omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Intake of these healthy fats have been associated with a decreased number of “health hindering” bacteria and increased number of “health promoting” bacteria in the gut in animal models and is expected to do the same in humans!

The Mediterranean diet encourages a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered a healthy fat, we often eat too much of them and they do have some pro-inflammatory properties. The goal is to increase omega-3 fatty acids while reducing omega-6’s in our diet.

The Mediterranean diet encourages a lower intake of saturated and trans-fat. These fats are found in:

  • Fatty meats
  • High fat dairy products
  • Some plant oils like palm kernel and coconut
  • Processed and packaged foods
  • Baked and fried goods

Dietary saturated fats and red and processed meats have been shown to increase numbers of pro-inflammatory markers by way of the gut microbiota and is associated with inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

Polyphenols & Antioxidants

Polyphenols are good-for-our-gut food chemicals that pass through the digestive tract and are utilized by our gut microbiota.

Certain polyphenols have shown in animal models and humans to:

  • Improve bacterial diversity in the gut – one proposed marker of a healthy gut microbiota
  • Decrease the “health hindering” bacteria
  • Have anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects beneficial to the gut
  • Reducing risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease
  • Promote healthy aging

Foods in the Mediterranean Diet containing these beneficial nutrients

Nutrients in the Mediterranean Diet Food Sources

  • Fibre – fruits and berries, vegetables, whole grains, pulses (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, and seeds
  • Monounsaturated Fatty Acids – olive oil, canola oil, seed oils, non-hydrogenated margarine, avocados, nuts, and seeds
  • Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids – fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines), olive oil, canola oil, seed oils, flaxseed, nuts and seeds
  • Polyphenols – plant-based beverages, herbs & spices, apples, berries, citrus fruits, plums, broccoli, cauliflower, dark leafy greens
  • Antioxidants – fruits and berries, vegetables, whole grain bread, pasts, cereals, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and garlic

Why is the Mediterranean lifestyle good for your gut microbiota?

We also know that many positive influences on gut health revolve around the idea of more physical activity, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep every night. The Mediterranean lifestyle focuses on spending time and eating meals with family and friends, in a relaxed, distraction free setting.

Physical Activity

The Mediterranean lifestyle focuses on movement and physical activity. Physical activity is associated with many health benefits and this includes the gut and gut microbiota. Activity doesn’t have to be ‘the most intense’ – which is really popular in North America right now. Getting back to basics and building in physical activity to your day in a way that is enjoyable is key. Some types of movement to try include:

  • Sports
  • Dancing
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Gardening
  • Swimming

Recommendations are to aim for 150 minutes minimum per week of physical activity.

Daily physical activity is associated with increasing movement in the digestive tract, and increasing the diversity, and abundance – two proposed markers of a healthy gut microbiota.

Stress & Sleep

Living a more laid-back lifestyle, adequate rest, and reduced stress are considered beneficial to the gut. Emotional stress and stress in the body can often affect regular function of our gut and its health. Stress can show itself by altering or changing bowel motion, regularity, and/or stool consistency.

The gut-brain axis is the communication back and forth between our gut and our brain. When experiencing higher levels of stress, changes in the gut microbiota and the gut-brain axis can occur, worsening digestive symptoms and potentially having negative consequences on our health. It is important to try to reduce stress and make sure you have positive coping strategies for the unavoidable stress.

The Mediterranean lifestyle values rest, living a more relaxed lifestyle, and enjoying time with friends and family, which can all also reduce stress. Little things we often overlook in a busy Westernized world are highly valued in the Mediterranean culture, like the importance of getting enough sleep every night.

Things to work towards include:

  • Getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night
  • Managing stress with positive coping strategies
  • Learning to manage your schedule in a way that reduces stress where able
  • Setting healthy boundaries so you can prioritize your wellness over the ‘busy lifestyle’ that is so valued in North America

How you can start eating Mediterranean today!

The Mediterranean diet is like a lifestyle, it not only focuses on what you eat but how you eat. Focus on slow eating and slow living, spending time with family and eating home cooked meals. Enjoying a variety of fresh whole foods rich in nutrients beneficial for gut and overall health. It encourages physical activity, reducing stress, and getting enough rest.

Things you can try, to eat like a Mediterranean

  • Increase intake of fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack
  • Choose whole grains when choosing grain products
  • Eat unsalted nuts and seeds every day
  • Cook with olive oil
  • Eat fish/and or seafood at least 2 times per week
  • Eating beans, lentils, chickpeas at least 2 times per week
  • Physical activity 150 minutes per week

Would you like more information on how to integrate the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle into your life? Would you like to know more about how the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle can positively impact your gut and gut microbiota? Work with one of our registered dietitians to get started!

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest, most enjoyable and easiest to sustain. Work with a registered dietitian with Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta to get started.

References

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