The Mediterranean Diet is a style of healthy eating that has stood the test of time and just happens to taste great
By EDNA COX RICE, RDN, CSG, LDN
If you’re looking for a healthful eating plan, the Mediterranean Diet might be the right choice for you. Eating the Mediterranean way is not really following a diet plan at all, rather it is an eating style that incorporates a variety of fresh foods that taste wonderful and have countless health benefits.
When you hear the term “Mediterranean” diet, you may think of Italian foods – pizza and pasta, or Greek dishes with feta cheese and baklava for dessert. A true Mediterranean Diet consists of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, seafood, a splash of olive oil, and even a glass of red wine if you choose. These nutrient dense foods, coupled with routine physical activity, are associated with preventing obesity and the resulting health consequences.
The Mediterranean Diet is not just another “fad” diet; the traditional Mediterranean Diet has been around for more than 50 years. While people may claim there is only one Mediterranean Diet, this is not accurate. Mediterranean means “the sea between lands.” The Mediterranean region is defined by at least 16 countries that border this sea. Diets vary between countries and even between regions within the countries. Cultural, ethnic and religious differences among the countries as well as differences in agricultural products impact dietary choices. But there are numerous commonalities in the eating styles and the types of foods consumed.
Basics of the Mediterranean Diet for the entire region include:
- Enjoying fresh, seasonal, & locally available foods
- Emphasizing the quality of the food, rather than the quantity
- Encouraging whole foods rather than processed or refined foods
- Eating increased servings of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and olive oil
- Engaging in and enjoying the experience of dining rather than a quick meal or “eating on-the-run”
- Exercising regularly
In the 1950s, Dr. Ancel Keys, an American physiologist, first recognized the potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Believing that heart disease was not a necessary part of the aging process, Dr. Keys laid the foundation for this way of eating to evolve into the Mediterranean Diet as we know it today. Dr. Keys followed these diet principles himself; he lived to the ripe young age of 100 and actively worked as a physiologist into his 90s!
The 2015 Scientific Report from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released new guidelines suggesting that for improved health, Americans should follow the Mediterranean dietary model. This recommendation is based on numerous studies since those of Dr. Keys’ that continually confirmed the positive impact on overall health and wellbeing by eating the Mediterranean way.
A Greek Study followed 22,000 participants for one year. This was the first large scale study of the Mediterranean Diet in which data were actually collected and documented. The study evaluated adherence to the Mediterranean Diet compared to a Western Diet. The physical activity of participants was monitored as well. The diet was scored on a scale of 0 – 9; nine being the closest adherence to eating the Mediterranean way. The results were remarkable―the higher the score, the longer an individual’s life span. Even with small changes in closer adherence to the Mediterranean diet, scores increasing from a 5 to a 7 for example, resulted in a 25% reduction in death from heart disease. Simply eating more vegetables and legumes markedly improved overall health.
Since 2003, research among the U.S. population has been conducted by leading medical schools such as Northwestern University, Stanford School of Medicine, Emory University, the University of Michigan, and Walter Reed Medical Center to name a few. Conclusions of all the studies overwhelmingly agreed that a Mediterranean diet surpassed the western diet in lowering risk factors for certain diseases that plague the American population.
Health benefits of eating the Mediterranean way:
- Promotes heart health
- Promotes healthier weight status
- Lowers total cholesterol levels & improves HDL cholesterol levels
- Lowers or prevents the risk of CVA (cerebrovascular accident)
- Improves blood pressure levels
- Prevents developing Type 2 diabetes mellitus
- Decreases the prevalence of depression by improving mood
- Combats low energy by boosting energy levels
- Reduces risk factors for certain types of cancer
- Decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease & other types of dementia
- Slows the aging process & promotes longevity
More good news. Transitioning from a western diet to eating closer to the Mediterranean style is not that difficult. This healthful eating style does not require any supplements, specific foods, and does not limit any one food group like many other diet plans and nutrition fads. Simply making a couple of changes such as eating more vegetables and legumes; enjoying more whole foods rather than refined foods; including more fish and limiting the servings of red meat weekly; snacking on fruit and skipping fat laden desserts; or using olive oil and healthier fats in place of saturated and trans fats will make a difference in decreasing your risk factors for numerous diseases. If you’re looking for guidelines to help you feel better, look better, live better & live longer – go Mediterranean!
Ten Quick Strategies for Eating the Mediterranean Way
- Include a serving of fruit at each meal and for a snack each day – that’s adding 4 servings of fruit daily.
- Switch from a low fiber breakfast cereal to a higher fiber cereal – helps to increase your servings of whole grains daily.
- Choose whole grain breads and brown rice rather than white bread and white rice; include other whole grains – quinoa, couscous, whole wheat or vegetable pastas.
- Eat at least 2 servings of vegetables at lunch & dinner daily – that’s adding 4 servings of vegetables daily and saving calories and fat at each meal.
- Lighten your milk by moving one step down in fat content from 2% to 1% or from 1% to totally fat free – saves up to 15 grams of saturated fat per serving.
- Enjoy fish or seafood as a main course at least twice a week.
- Limit red meat entrees to 2 or 3 per week, limit servings to 3-4 oz.
- Plan for at least 3 servings of legumes per week by including – chickpeas, black beans, lentils, peas, any other type of bean, or peanuts.
- Snack on omega 3 rich nuts and seeds – almonds, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios. Keep in mind this food group still contains fat, although the fats are heart healthy, and servings still need to be limited to 2-3 oz. Use 100 – 200 calorie snack packs to achieve health benefits not the calories.
- Use olive oil in place of saturated fats.