The Mediterranean diet has consistently been named as the healthiest diet to follow as some of its benefits include boosting cardiovascular health and aiding weight loss - but did you know it can have positive effects on gut health too?
A recent study found that the Mediterranean diet can promote certain gut bacteria that has been linked to healthy ageing among older people.
The study, published in the journal Gut, said that while prior research had found that poor or restricted diets can diminish the range and microbiome (types of bacteria) in the gut and speed up frailty, people who stuck to a Mediterranean diet for 12 months saw beneficial changes in their gut microbiome.
So, what is the Mediterranean diet and what other effects does it have on gut health?
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a blanket term for the food eaten in countries that border the Mediterranean sea, specifically countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey.
The World Health Organisation says the diet “originated in the olive-growing areas of the Mediterranean region and has a strong cultural association with these areas”.
It adds that the Mediterranean diet is characterised by a high intake of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and wholegrain cereals, along with fish and poultry. It typically has a low intake of high fat dairy products, red meat, processed meat and sweets.
The Mediterranean diet and gut health
According to charity Guts UK, the Mediterranean diet can have several positive effects on gut health, including reducing the risk of bowel cancer, and feeding your gut microbiota.
The main way a Mediterranean diet can impact your gut health is because it is high in fibre. It is recommended that Brits have 30g fibre per day, yet most of us are only consuming 18g.
Guts UK says that while the Western diet - the one consumed by the majority of Brits - is typically low in fibre, the high amount of fruit, vegetables and pulses consumed in a Mediterranean diet makes it much higher in fibre.
“The Mediterranean diet is higher in fibre, and we know there is an 11% decrease in the risk of developing bowel cancer for an extra 10g of fibre per day in the diet,” Guts UK says.
It adds: “Fibre benefits the gut microbiome by increasing the amounts of beneficial species living in our gut (such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterial). Put simply, fibre ‘feeds’ the microorganisms living in your gut.”
Other health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Along with gut health benefits, the Mediterranean diet can also have a positive affect on several other conditions.
The British Heart Foundation says that it can decrease the risk of heart disease as it lessens the risk of several conditions related to cardiovascular health such as raised blood pressure, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. One study in particular that followed 26,000 women found that those eating a Mediterranean diet lowered their risk of heart disease by 25%.
Several other studies have found that following a Mediterranean diet can lower your overall risk of mortality, that it can prevent cognitive decline, and that those following the diet were 46% more likely to age healthily - as in have no chronic diseases by the time they were 70 - compared to those eating other diets.
How to follow the Mediterranean diet
If you’re new to the Mediterranean diet, don’t fear. You probably only need to make a few tweaks to what you’re currently eating in order to follow the diet (a full guide from the NHS can be found here).
The main principles of the Mediterranean diet include:
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables: The NHS says you should aim to eat at least five 80g portions a day as these are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Have two portions of fish per week: Fish, particularly oily fish like salmon, is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and oily fish has omega 3 which can boost heart health.
Eat more healthy fats: Examples of healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, and nuts. At the same time, reduce your intake of high fat dairy products and other oils.
Eat high fibre starchy foods: This can include oats, beans, lentils, and sweet potatoes. Other starches like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes are also good but should be eaten in moderation.
You can find further information on what to include and what to avoid on the Mediterranean diet with this NHS guide.
Gut health: Read more
Gut health: Foods to eat and avoid to improve your wellbeing (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
Top tips for keeping gut health in check on holiday (Cover Media, 3-min read)
Do you have ‘winter gut lag’? How the change in weather can negatively impact your gut (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
Watch: Keys to Improving Your Gut Health