It's arguably the healthiest diet in the world. The Mediterranean diet - which emphasizes fruit and vegetables, grains, nuts and olive oil - is recognized as the gold standard for promoting good health.
The diet helps guard against heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes, asthma, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. And it's been shown to increase life expectancy.
Now, after reviewing 50 studies conducted on more than 500,000 people, researchers say the diet substantially lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome and is highly protective against all the risk factors that cause the disorder.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, a person has metabolic syndrome if he or she has a large waist circumference plus two or more of the following: high blood triglycerides (blood fat), high blood pressure, elevated fasting blood sugar (glucose) and low HDL (good) cholesterol.
Metabolic syndrome doubles the risk of heart attack and increases the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes fivefold.
Abdominal obesity is one of the main causes of all the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Fat inside the abdomen produces hormones and inflammatory chemicals that disrupt the body's ability to metabolize glucose and fat properly; it also releases inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream.
The study, published this month in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, revealed that those following a Mediterranean-style diet were significantly less likely to develop metabolic syndrome.
What's more, they had smaller waist circumferences, higher HDL cholesterol levels, lower blood triglycerides, lower blood pressure and better blood-sugar metabolism than folks who didn't follow this eating pattern.
Scientists speculate the Mediterranean diet's health benefits are due to its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
The Mediterranean diet reflects the dietary habits of Crete, Greece and southern Italy in about 1960, when rates of chronic diseases in these regions were among the lowest in the world and life expectancy was the highest.
Low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat, high in fibre and packed with protective phytochemicals, it's primarily plant-based, with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts eaten daily. Milk, cheese and yogurt are also part of the daily diet.
Red meat is eaten only a few times a month, while poultry and fish are consumed at least twice a week. The diet also allows up to seven eggs a week, including those used in cooking and baking.
The principal fat is olive oil; butter and margarine are seldom used. Herbs and spices rather than salt are used to flavour foods.
While the North American diet has moved toward more meat and less fruit and vegetables over the past half-century, the Mediterranean diet is minimally processed and incorporates seasonal and locally grown foods when possible.
Use the following strategies to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet:
Have fruit and vegetables daily
These foods deliver fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals and should be eaten at most meals. Include whole fresh fruit at breakfast and at snacks and serve fruit salad or berries for dessert. Make sure lunch includes at least one vegetable serving such as a spinach salad, grated raw carrot or red pepper sticks. Aim to cover half your plate at dinner with vegetables.
Switch to whole grain
Minimally processed grains such as barley, bulgur, couscous, farro, millet and oats are a central part of the Mediterranean diet. Choose 100 per cent whole grain breads and cereals. Eat brown rice and whole grain pasta more often than white.
Choose low-fat dairy
These foods supply protein, calcium and B vitamins. Buy yogurt with 1 per cent milk fat or less. Eat cheese in small portions; look for part skim versions (less than 20 per cent milk fat).
Eat fish twice weekly
To get heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, eat oily fish twice a week. Good choices include salmon, sardines, herring and trout. Enjoy (unbreaded) fish baked, grilled or steamed.
Scale back red meat
No more than three times a month (maximum of 12 to 16 ounces a month). Instead of having a large steak, have smaller portions of meat in a stir-fry, stew or pasta dish. As a main course, limit your portion to three ounces - this fills only one-quarter of your dinner plate.
Add vegetarian meals
To increase your intake of vegetarian protein, eat a legume-based meal at least twice a week. Try a lentil soup, vegetarian chili or black bean tacos.
Choose healthy fats
Fats should be unsaturated. Use olive oil in cooking and baking. (Extra virgin olive oil is not suitable for high-heat frying.) Include a small handful of nuts or seeds in your daily diet. Instead of butter or margarine, add sliced avocado to sandwiches.
Drink in moderation
A moderate amount of wine may be consumed with meals. This means no more than five ounces a day for women and 10 ounces for men. Wine is optional; alcohol, even in moderation, is not healthy for everyone.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. www.lesliebeck.com.
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