The medical community has long praised the health benefits of adhering to a Mediterranean diet. From reducing risk of peripheral artery disease to minimizing type 2 diabetes risks, it seems the healthy diet can prevent a multitude of ills. And now, researchers say children who adhere to the diet are less likely to be overweight or obese.

Dr. Gianluca Tognon, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and colleagues recently presented their research at the European Congress on Obesity in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Their study included data from the IDEFICS study, which was funded by the European Commission and included information from eight European countries: Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium, Estonia and Hungary.

The Mediterranean diet gives priority to eating plant-based foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. It also advocates consuming fish and poultry at least twice a week, and limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month.

Another lifestyle-based component of the diet focuses on the importance of being physically active and eating meals with family and friends.

To further examine how adherence to the Mediterranean diet impacts on the health of children, the team interviewed parents of children involved in the study with a specially designed questionnaire that asked how often the children consumed 43 foods.

The researchers measured weight, height, waist circumference and body fat percentages for the children from the eight countries, and they also conducted telephone interviews on a sub-sample of parents.

Next, the team assessed Mediterranean diet adherence by creating a scoring system, whereby they gave one point for high intake of each food group typical of the Mediterranean diet – including fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and cereal grains.

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The Mediterranean diet emphasizes consuming fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil.

They likewise assigned one point for low intake of foods that are not part of the diet, such as dairy and meat products.

After calculating the scores, the researchers deemed high-scoring children as “high-adherent” and compared them with the other children.

Of the eight countries, adherence to the Mediterranean-like diet was highest in children from Sweden, while adherence was lowest in children from Cyprus, surprisingly.

Results showed that children with high adherence to the diet were 15% less likely to be overweight or obese and were 10-15% less likely to experience major increases in body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and body fat, compared with children with low adherence.

Dr. Tognon speaks of the surprising finding that adherence to the diet was independent of geographical distribution:

The promotion of a Mediterranean dietary pattern is no longer a feature of Mediterranean countries. Considering its potential beneficial effects on obesity prevention, this dietary pattern should be part of EU obesity prevention strategies and its promotion should be particularly intense in those countries where low levels of adherence are detected.”

The team notes that their findings were independent of age, sex, socioeconomic status or country of residence.

In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested a link between a Mediterranean diet and a longer lifespan.