Interestingly, the people along the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, notably the inhabitants of Spain, southern Italy, and Greece, have a high-fat diet yet have lower rates of cardiovascular diseases than do people in the United States. While it might seem like a paradox in that people can consume so much fat yet avoid the pitfalls of their choices, the basic components of the Mediterranean diet, such as its emphasis on plants and olive oil instead of red meat, entail numerous health benefits with minimal drawbacks, which helps demystify this apparent conundrum.

Most significantly, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables at the expense of meat, which represents one of the most significant reasons the diet contributes to a healthier bodies in this region compared to elsewhere. The Mediterranean diet consists of numerous servings of fruits and vegetables. In Greece, the average adult consumes six servings of fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis whereas only the most diligent Americans consume their recommended five servings. Rather than opting for high-fat choices for a daily dessert, the people in the Mediterranean satisfy their sweet tooth by choosing fresh fruit. The people near the Mediterranean make a similar decision when it comes to snacks. Rather than fattier alternatives, vegetables and fruits help satisfy between-meal cravings without the drawbacks. By making this wise decision, these people avoid the types of fat that lead to cardiovascular problems among people in other regions of the world.

In addition to the hefty emphasis on fruits and vegetables, the Mediterranean diet consists of numerous servings of unprocessed whole grains and legumes. Prominently, these grains include whole and unprocessed versions of wheat, rye, rice, and barley. The Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of healthy legumes, such as soybeans, peanuts, beans, and lentils, which add flavor and texture to meals without a rapid increase in caloric intake. While legumes enhance the flavor of meals, they also provide an excellent healthy choice for snaking between meals in the same way as do fruits and vegetables. Legumes contain high levels of fiber, protein, and healthy fats, so they represent a much-healthier alternative to the typical snack options preferred in other regions. Along with the fruits and vegetables, these grains and legumes form the core of the Mediterranean diet.

Rather than cooking with heavy amounts of unhealthy butter, the Mediterranean diet uses ample amounts of olive oil, which provides a healthier alternative. “When it comes to the Mediterranean diet, I really appreciate the substitution of olive oil for butter, which I try to incorporate as often as possible,” explains Mark from Alabama, who has integrated the Mediterranean diet into his lifestyle. He continues, “I prefer the taste and texture of olive oil, and it’s healthier, too.” Olive oil, which has very high levels of monounsaturated fats and fiber yet low levels of saturated fat, contributes to lower rates of coronary heart disease. In addition to its uses in cooking, the people near the Mediterranean apply it to their breads instead of butter. The substitute of olive oil for butter in cooking and frying represents one of the major reasons the Mediterranean people can consume high amounts of fat yet avoid the negative consequences of a high-fat diet.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes form the core of the Mediterranean diet, but dairy products and meat represent key elements, as well. Notably, the Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of yogurt and cheese for dairy, instead of high-fat milk and ice cream, which helps maintain strong bones without the extra fat. For protein, the Mediterranean diet consists mostly of shellfish and poultry, which they consume on average two or more times per week. The shellfish and poultry replace red meat, which people in the Mediterranean only consume a couple times in a month, as the major source of protein. By choosing fish over red meat, the Mediterranean diet once again privileges healthier fats over dangerous ones. For example, fatty fish such as mackerel or salmon contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, which promote lower triglyceride levels and, therefore, decrease the risk of heart attacks (see also: How Many Calories In Anchovies). Overall, the people along the Mediterranean eat less meat than people in other regions, and they choose healthier sources of protein, as well.

To accentuate the meal, the Mediterranean diet promotes the regular yet moderate consumption of red wine. For the most part, people consume not much more than five ounces of wine on a given occasion, but they tend to partake on a more frequent basis. While many medical practitioners hesitate to advocate the consumption of alcohol, researchers have linked moderate intake of red wine, always less than ten ounces and usually less than five ounces in a given day, to many health benefits that other beverages cannot boast.

As a result of this diet, the people in the Mediterranean enjoy many health benefits. First, these people have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. By consuming a diet low in saturated fat but high in fiber, people tend to lower their cholesterol, their blood pressure, and therefore, their risk of early death, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, the Mediterranean diet contributes to a 50% lowering of early death rates.

In addition to the physiological benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the spirit of mealtime contributes to an enjoyable social experience. The people along the Mediterranean intend for large gatherings, especially consisting of family, to partake in the meal together and enjoy one another’s company, which can maintain the health of the soul and the body.