Cheese lovers rejoice! A new version of the Mediterranean diet allows for several servings of dairy a day and has been shown to be just as healthy.
A new take on the classic Mediterranean diet offers some of the same health benefits while potentially making it more accessible to Americans.
Like it or not, dairy is still an important part of many western diets, including in the United States and Australia.
However, if you’re trying to stick to the Mediterranean diet as it’s intended, dairy consumption is cut to a minimum and only consumed in a few forms, such as cheese and yogurt.
The absence of dairy from the diet can make it difficult for some to adhere to it for cultural reasons in the west as well as dietary ones. (Calcium intake, for example, tends to be lower.)
However, a promising new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, makes the case that the Mediterranean diet can be supplemented with additional dairy to meet calcium needs while still providing the hallmark health benefits the diet is known for.
“Our study found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 3 servings of dairy each day meets the calcium needs of older Australians, while improving blood pressure, cholesterol, brain function, and mood,” Alexandra Wade, first author of the study and PhD candidate in the School of Health Sciences at University of South Australia, told Healthline.
“This demonstrates that the Mediterranean diet can be modified to improve sustainability and feasibility in non-Mediterranean populations, and continue to reduce risk of CVD and possibly dementia,” she added.
Wade’s study compared the health benefits of the dairy-modified (MedDairy) Mediterranean diet, which included 3-4 servings of dairy per day, with a more traditional low-fat diet in 41 participants ages 45 or older.
The participants took part in each diet intervention (MedDairy and low-fat) for 8 weeks with an 8-week washout period in between.
The MedDairy diet was associated with numerous health benefits related to lowering risk of cardiovascular disease, including improved blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by:
- a high intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes
- primarily unrefined grains
- a high intake of monounsaturated fat (from extra virgin olive oil)
- a moderately high intake of fish
- low consumption of red meat, poultry, and sugar
- moderate dairy consumption — typically cheese and yogurt
- a moderate intake of ethanol (in the form of wine)
Prior studies have shown that the diet has been associated with dramatic health benefits, including lowering risk of stroke by as much as 39 percent, lower rates of diabetes, and lower all-cause mortality and prolonged survival in elderly people.
However, the diet tends to fall short when it comes to calcium.
According to Wade’s study, the daily amount of calcium provided by the Mediterranean diet averages between 700-820 milligrams per day (mg/day).
That falls well short of the 1,000 mg/day recommended by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for adult men and women in the United States. For teenagers, the recommended calcium intake per day climbs to 1,300 mg.
The study also presents some additional problems for consideration.
“My main concern in reading the study and the takeaways is that people will walk away thinking that dairy is the only source of calcium. Plenty of plant-based sources, such as collard greens, sesame seeds, and almonds contain calcium,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian and wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Kirkpatrick is unaffiliated with the study.
Plenty of non-dairy foods, including sardines, turnips, tofu, and a myriad of “fortified” products including orange juice and breakfast cereals can also help supplement calcium intake.
The USDA currently recommends three servings of dairy per day for all men and women over the age of 8.
“Countries like Australia and the U.S. calculate nutrient recommendations based on the specific needs of their populations. As it stands, a traditional Mediterranean diet does not meet these recommendations. This could limit the long-term sustainability and uptake of the diet, especially in older populations where there are already high risks of musculoskeletal issues like sarcopenia and osteoporosis,” said Wade.
Altering the Mediterranean diet to make it more appealing to Americans could be an important step toward long-term health — even if some see the addition of dairy as an unnecessary step.
“The Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied diets with the highest rates of efficacy for overall reduction of heart disease as well as other chronic diseases. Dairy is not a huge factor in the Med diet and I doubt one study will significantly change that,” said Kirkpatrick.