The Important Parts of the Mediterranean Diet That Most People Ignore

When you ask someone about the Mediterranean Diet, typically the first thing they’ll mention is “Oh, yeah, lots of olive oil!” So that message has gotten through (though don’t forget the other basics of the diet: loads of veggies, seafood, whole grains, little meat, and very few sweets). Most folks also know that doctors, dietitians, and other health professionals sing the eating plan’s praises for its potential to bring important health benefits such as better blood cholesterol levels, help prevent chronic diseases, decreased likelihood of obesity, and others.

Given that it’s a highly regarded and popular eating style, it’s no surprise that Guiding Stars has provided quite a bit of information about the Mediterranean Diet before, including a blog post where I covered aspects of the Mediterranean Diet, recipes for Mediterranean Diet-inspired dishes (see them easily on our Pinterest Board), and even a 30-minute webinar on Making the Mediterranean Diet Work for You that’s free and available to all.

You might think that we’ve done the Mediterranean Diet enough here, but there are aspects of the eating plan that we haven’t really covered at all! And in some ways, the less-discussed parts of the Mediterranean lifestyle can be just as important for your well-being as the food parts of the plan. In fact, the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was revised in 2011, partly to ensure that it included “qualitative cultural and lifestyle elements” that were left out of the earlier version. UNESCO has even placed the Mediterranean Diet on its list of “Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” citing the diet’s emphasis on sharing food and eating together as the foundation of the area’s cultural identity.

Woman walking on a beach

There are very few research studies that have looked specifically at the non-food aspects of the Mediterranean Diet and the relationships of these aspects to health (here is one). I hope that more such studies are undertaken soon, as we learn more every day about the value of everything “around” food, eating and meals (not just food itself) is important for wellbeing. Using the Mediterranean Lifestyle Index as a guide, along with other descriptions of the lifestyle factors that contribute to the Mediterranean Diet, here are some of the non-food aspects of the lifestyle that likely contribute to the healthfulness of those who follow a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle.

Physical Activity

The benefits of physical activity for overall bodily health are well-known, and it doesn’t need to be especially vigorous activity in order to provide benefits. Traditionally, walking is the major form of exercise among Mediterranean people, and a daily walking habit isn’t too difficult for most people to adopt. In additional to cardiovascular and weight-control benefits, walking and other physical activities can have a significant role in stress-reduction and contribute to better sleep patterns.

Social Meals

What you are eating is one thing, but whom you eat with is also important. Sharing meals with friends, neighbors and relatives is central to the Mediterranean lifestyle, and therefore is included as an important part of following the Mediterranean Diet. Celebrations and holidays are always marked with special foods, parties and meals. Some studies have shown that spending time with loved ones and friends is associated with reduced stress and is inversely associated with hypertension in older people.

Culinary Activities

Although related to food of course, this aspect refers to taking an interest in the quality of one’s food, such as helping to prepare food for the household and guests, utilizing locally-produced foods and ingredients, celebrating the seasonality of foods, learning to preserve food, growing food, and teaching children about the Mediterranean lifestyle.

The health effects of the Mediterranean lifestyle extend beyond those provided by traditional Mediterranean foods, concludes this study. If you’re interested in emulating the Mediterranean way of life for its health benefits, don’t forget to include the non-food aspects into your practice.