The Influence of the Mediterranean Diet on Intestinal Health

The Mediterranean diet has become popular as a model of healthy eating. Recent studies also link this type of diet with better intestinal health. What does the evidence show? Learn all about it in this article!
The Influence of the Mediterranean Diet on Intestinal Health

Last update: 27 August, 2020

In recent years, researchers have investigated the effects of the Mediterranean diet on intestinal health. Although they still haven’t explored the link in-depth, they’ve already discovered certain benefits, especially when it comes to the state of the microbiota.

This group of bacteria and microorganisms lives in the digestive system and plays an important role in your health. In fact, they’re positively associated with the healthy functioning of the immune system and the proper metabolization of food, among other benefits.

What does diet have to do with intestinal health? Why do we recommend the Mediterranean diet?

In this article, we’ll answer these and many other questions about the benefits of this diet.

Diet and intestinal flora

One of the organs most influenced by the quality of diet and lifestyle is, without a doubt, the intestine. Microorganisms that participate in different vital functions such as digestion, the immune system, the inflammatory response, or the synthesis of vitamins live in this organ, .

Thus, when your intestinal flora is healthy, balanced, and ready to perform these functions, its characteristics are as follows:

  • It has the right amount of beneficial microorganisms.
  • There’s no overgrowth of harmful microorganisms.
  • It has adequate microbial diversity.

Regarding food and the microbiota, we should note that some foods enhance the activity of bacteria, by exerting anti-inflammatory functions and favoring the production of short-chain fatty acids. In fact, fatty acids are one of the main sources of food for intestinal cells and can help keep the intestinal mucosa in good condition.

In the words of Laura Bolte, principal researcher of a scientific study on diet and intestinal microbiome, “the results indicate that diet is likely to become a significant and serious line of treatment or management for intestinal diseases, by regulating the intestinal microbiome.”

Woman making heart with hands over stomach behind foods like yogurt, fruits, and nuts.
Scientific evidence points to the Mediterranean diet playing an important role in intestinal health.

Mediterranean diet and intestinal health

The Mediterranean diet, in particular, is one of the most studied in terms of diet and health. Broadly speaking, we can say that the Mediterranean eating pattern is linked to a lower risk of suffering from chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, for example.

Now, a scientific study also associates this eating model with better gut health. Published in the journal, Gut, it concludes that following a Mediterranean diet for a year can contribute to:

  • Boost intestinal bacteria related to slowing frailty and cognitive decline.
  • Reduce bacteria associated with an inflammatory state.
  • Prevent the loss of bacterial diversity.
  • Reduce the presence of pro-inflammatory substances that have harmful health effects.

Regarding this, it’s important to mention that, while it’s true that the results are positive and that they open the door to new research, the researchers admitted that the state of health of intestinal bacteria can’t be linked only to diet. Thus, when talking about intestinal health, we should also consider other factors that also influence its condition.

What are the characteristics of the Mediterranean diet for intestinal health?

Although the Mediterranean diet can vary somewhat by region, in general, it has a number of common characteristics. In its traditional form, it’s based on the regular intake of certain food groups. Specifically, it has the following characteristics:

  • Extra virgin olive oil is the main source of fat, both for cooking and dressing.
  • The daily consumption of vegetables, particularly leafy greens.
  • Regular consumption of fruits and whole grains.
  • Nuts and legumes are included in moderation.
  • The consumption of fish (especially fatty fish).
  • Very moderate consumption of meat and dairy products.
  • Low amounts of red meat and saturated fat.

According to the evidence, some of these foods are more beneficial in terms of intestinal health. Which ones are they and why are they important?

We’ll take a detailed look below.

Foods from the Mediterranean diet that influence intestinal health, including fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
The nutrients that some foods in the Mediterranean diet contain are beneficial for the microbiota since they have anti-inflammatory effects and act as prebiotics.

1. Fatty acids

In this case, the optimal intake of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids is important, accompanied by a low consumption of saturated fats. This lipid profile is beneficial since it’s associated with very low inflammatory markers.

2. Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates (MAC)

Eating this type of fiber is also important, which we can also call MACs. This carbohydrate can’t be digested, since the body doesn’t have the enzymes it needs to do so. For this reason, it reaches the colon intact where it’s fermented by bacteria.

From there, a series of good compounds are derived for the health of the colon, apart from serving as food for microorganisms. In general, studies have found higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the stool of people who regularly ate a Mediterranean diet.

3. Polyphenols

Polyphenols are present in this type of diet since it’s abundant in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and aromatic herbs. These compounds have been included in the group of prebiotic foods, that is, those that nourish intestinal bacteria. Phenols act positively for two reasons:

  • They increase the diversity of gut microbes.
  • They help prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Other healthy habits for the gut microbiota

Diet is one of the most important factors to determine the composition of your intestinal flora, but it’s not the only one. Some environmental and lifestyle aspects also influence your condition.

We know, for example, that stress negatively affects the gut. Likewise, insufficient rest and lack of physical exercise can have similar effects.

In addition, when we talk about food, not only what you eat influences gut health, but also how you do it. Therefore, it’s better to eat slowly and ensure optimal hydration. Finally, to avoid changes in these bacteria, it’s best to abandon harmful habits such as alcohol and tobacco consumption.

A woman holding a glass of water.
Hydration plays an important role in the health of your microbiota. Likewise, it’s important to avoid stress and unhealthy habits.

The Mediterranean diet is also good for intestinal health

A well-planned Mediterranean diet, with traditional, fresh, and little prepared foods is one of the best in terms of health. Apart from its known benefits at the vascular and cerebral level, now we can also add benefits at the intestinal level since it contains foods and nutrients that are ideal for the microbiota.

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