Among the legion of today's most popular diet regimens, the Mediterranean diet has become a poster child for healthy eating, garnering praise from nutrition experts and home gourmets alike.
But while few would dispute the health benefits of such a diet, what is it about the Mediterranean menu that makes it so healthy?
A study released Tuesday in the online edition of the British Medical Journal took aim at this very question. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the University of Athens Medical School in Greece looked at more than 23,000 Greek men and women participating in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). Over the course of about eight and a half years, the researchers led by Harvard's Dimitrios Trichopoulos and the University of Athens' Antonia Trichopoulou compared the health of the participants against their adherence to a Mediterranean diet.
What they found was that certain foods in the diet, more than others, may offer the bulk of the nutritional benefits of the regimen.
As the authors note, that the analysis "indicates that the dominant components of the Mediterranean diet score as a predictor of lower mortality are moderate consumption of [alcohol], low consumption of meat and meat products, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts, olive oil, and legumes."
In contrast, they noted, high consumption of fish and cereals and an avoidance of dairy products in the Mediterranean diet seemed to have little to do with the benefits of the overall diet.
The authors were quick to point out that their findings could not be assumed to be universally applicable. And some diet and nutrition experts noted that examining the Mediterranean diet component by component may not be the best approach.
"In some ways, looking for the 'active ingredients' in the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet may be a distraction, since it is the overall dietary pattern that matters most to health," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "Once you have a mostly plant based diet and eat few processed foods, almost any variation on the theme will be fine."
And some said the research ignored a main strength of the diet -- namely, what it omits.
"One of the strengths of the Mediterranean diet is what it does not contain: high amounts of sugar and preservatives," said New York-based weight and nutrition expert Dr. Jana Klauer. "The standard American diet stimulates the craving for sweet taste through overly sweetened foods."
Still, will the findings have implications for your own diet? The following pages take a closer look at what nutrition experts have to say about the various components of the Mediterranean diet.
Widely used in Mediterranean-style cooking, olive oil has become almost synonymous with the Mediterranean diet itself. The healthy reputation may be well-deserved, as the authors of the new study note that this component of the regimen appears to confer at least some of it health benefits.
Katz noted that olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat -- a fat that is believed to which lower total cholesterol and, more specifically, levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol in the blood.