The Mediterranean Diet is not a fad diet!
You never know what the next fad diet will be. Diets tend to replace each other every few months, each more extreme than the next. Today you give up carbs, tomorrow you’re on a juice cleanse, then a few years later newly branded versions make the rounds, only to phase out, too.
Of course, there’s a reason these are just passing fads.
Whatever results you get out of a semi-fast may feel exciting for a while, but it’s impossible to (safely) keep up a diet like that in the long-term. Instead of looking for dramatic, short-term diets, a much wiser approach is to take on a tried-and-true healthy lifestyle that can carry you through old age not only without difficulty, but with abundant rewards.
The Mediterranean Diet is anything but a fad. It’s a lifestyle that has proven itself to be the gold standard again and again, enduring for generations across several countries. Before modern western habits started to take over, Mediterranean families depended on the plants and animals of their area for natural, balanced meals. The Mediterranean diet is closely tied to the culture of the region, as well. These healthy meals are long, savored events shared among friends and family, and often accompanied by a glass of red wine.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
Today, we don’t have to put much thought into where our food comes from. We can eat whatever fruits and vegetables we want, regardless of the season, and we have factory-processed snack foods and sweets shipped to us from around the world. But in the Mediterranean, the traditional diet simply reflected what is on the land and in the sea.
The Mediterranean Diet is actually a pattern, with specific localities in the region following their own version. Overall, what the diets have in common is that they emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and olive oil (as an alternative to butter), and instead of an overload of red meat, they look to lean sources of protein in fish, poultry, and naturally low-fat dairy from pastured animals. Red wine is enjoyed in moderation, and foods are flavored with spices and herbs instead of salt.
Like with anything in life, the key to the Mediterranean Diet lies in moderation. Even when you’re careful to eat healthy food, you need to make sure you’re eating those healthy foods in wise amounts. For example, Authority Nutrition offers a look at how often people recommend you incorporate the following into the Mediterranean Diet:
- Eat in Abundance: Vegetables (including tubers such as potatoes), fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and products, herbs, spices, seafood (including fatty fish), and extra virgin olive oil.
- Eat in Moderation: Poultry, eggs, yogurt, and soft and semi-soft cheeses (all pastured)
- Eat Only Rarely: Red meat (pastured).
- Don’t Eat: Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined and hydrogenated oils and other highly processed foods.
Is the Mediterranean Diet right for me?
In short? Probably!
The Mediterranean Diet has been found in numerous studies to reduce the risk of heart disease. In a study of more than 1.5 million healthy adults, the Mediterranean Diet was found to be linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. In addition, research has shown that following the Mediterranean Diet can assist in weight loss, improve control of blood sugar levels, and reduce levels of inflammation.
Researchers have been studying the effects of the Mediterranean Diet for many years now, and there is no doubt that it has benefited the health of those living in the region. According to a study in Greece by Antonia Trichopoulou, the Mediterranean Diet was found to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Research by Artemis Simopoulos links the diet with a reduced risk of breast cancer, and Michel de Lorgeril found it to reduce not only the risk of breast cancer but of diabetes, as well.
Though these benefits imply that the Mediterranean can improve the health of anyone, certain circumstances or dietary restrictions may make it harder for some people to keep to this particular eating plan. For example, those with sensitivities to grains would need to work around the whole grain recommendation. Vegans need to emphasize the plant-based protein sources, as they won’t be partaking in the fish, poultry, or eggs that have traditionally been characteristic of the Mediterranean Diet.
That said, even those who find some aspects of the Diet unavailable to them may find it worthwhile to simply substitute and work around the diet. It is by no means a case of all-or-nothing, and the long-term health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are worth the initial effort of making it work for you.
The Mediterranean Diet is no stranger to substitution. At face value, the diet is nothing more than a structure or pattern of eating. You can easily keep to that pattern, and yet work to include foods that are local to your own region. For example, the Nordic Diet is basically the same as the Mediterranean diet, but with foods available to northern regions such as Scandinavia.
How Can I Start the Mediterranean Diet?
Granted, the “rules” of the Mediterranean Diet are a little more complicated than “don’t eat carbs,” or “don’t eat sugar.” But if you take a couple weeks to do your research, adjust your shopping list, and plan your meals, you’ll end up with a far more manageable diet in the long-term. There are really just a few ideas to get straight in the Mediterranean Diet: what makes up a meal, what makes up a snack, and how to (healthfully) indulge. To get you started, here’s a breakdown of what makes the Mediterranean Diet great.
While American is a very heterogeneous country in terms of diet, the average intake of vegetables isn’t nearly as high as it should on a regular basis. The general recommendation is 3-8 servings of vegetables each day (keeping in mind that a serving size can vary from ½ a cup to 2 cups). An easy point of reference is to remember that the more colorful, the better. A variety of colors will help you get a range of antioxidants and vitamins, and a large salad is a great way to take in a diverse array of vegetables in one meal.
We usually get our protein from one of the worst places we could look: red meat. The Mediterranean Diet encourages us to instead look to skinless chicken, turkey, fish, beans, and nuts for our daily sources of protein. Try to eat fish twice a week, particularly omega-3-rich fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Instead of having your protein source be the center of the meal (i.e. hamburger, with fries on the side), try to arrange your meal to have the focus be whole grains and vegetables with your meat as just a flavoring. (For example, a chicken salad lets you take in more greens than chicken).
Some diets claim that all grains should be avoided, while the evidence shows that the majority of individuals benefit from whole grains. If your body can tolerate grains, then the Mediterranean Diet says you should enjoy them (wisely).
That said, try to be more discriminating in how you choose which grains you want on your shopping list. Whole grains have much more to offer than their refined counterparts (i.e. white bread), and you’ll want to make sure you’re enjoying the full diversity of well-known healthy grains that are available to you (i.e. barley, oatmeal, popcorn with olive oil) and dive into some of the “ancient” grains that have retained their original superfood value (i.e. quinoa, spelt, emmer, einkorn, oat groats). If you feel like it’s too much of a struggle to jump straight into whole grain pasta and breads, try to dip your toes in by mixing together a meal of half whole-grain pasta and half refined-grain pasta. Over time, you may feel ready to go 100% whole grain.
Healthy alternatives to grains that fit the nutrition bill include starchy tubers such as potatoes, especially those with color (i.e. sweet, purple) and parsnips, and even chestnuts.
Perhaps the best-known ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet is olive oil. Where westerners will turn to butter, margarine, and vegetable oil, people in the Mediterranean know the benefits of a good splash of olive oil. A very recent study in Spanish women found that adherence to the diet with an emphasis on olive oil was associated with significantly lower risk of breast cancer.
Olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats, which promote heart health in the long-term. You can use olive oil for cooking and baking, as well as mixing it with balsamic vinegar and using it as a delicious, healthy seasoning. Olive oil drizzled over assorted vegetables may reduce the risk of breast cancer, and olive oil mixed with tomatoes may increase levels of antioxidants and reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is considered to be one of the leading beneficial factors of the Mediterranean and other longevity-supporting dietary patterns (such as the Okinawan). This again points to the role of fatty fish such as salmon and tuna in the diet, as well as pastured eggs and Mediterranean plants such as purslane, along with avoidance of factory-farmed animal foods and overly processed foods.
This is where we really take a blow when left to our own devices. The snack aisle of a western grocery store is all about intense artificial flavors and high sodium levels, anything to win us over with an interesting taste and to-go packaging for our moments of weakness during the workday.
But the Mediterranean Diet has a completely different approach to snacking. Between meals, satisfy your hunger with nuts, low-fat cheese, nuts, or dairy (i.e. yogurt). If you want more flavor with your yogurt, mix in fresh fruit for an even healthier treat.
One of the most effective aspects of the Mediterranean Diet is that it truly is a lifestyle, and the culture it was born out of is one of people who enjoy a slower pace of life. Meals are meant to be savored, allowing you both the chance to enjoy your companions and to take time to digest and feel full before you overeat.
Part of the slow pace of meals in the Mediterranean is due to the inclusion of one glass of red wine, which has been proven to thin the blood and reduce the risk of heart disease. However, this heath benefit is only true for those who drink alcohol in moderation (one glass of red wine per day).
One of the best reasons to take on the Mediterranean Diet is because you think you can keep it up for a long time. After swimsuit season, after you’ve gone down to your ideal weight, the diversity of foods that make up the Mediterranean Diet should make it possible for you to stick with this healthy lifestyle for years to come.
Part of sticking with it, of course, is the ability to indulge every once in a while. While very special occasions can merit whatever you feel like (i.e. pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving), in your day-to-day life you may want to look to fresh fruit as a healthy dessert you can enjoy every day. If you feel yourself getting tired of this, simply drizzle some honey on some orange slices or try out a new piece of exotic fruit.
Finally, healthy eating patterns generally offer their optimal health benefits when implemented with the element of physical exercise. In the Mediterranean, people pair their diet with an active lifestyle. Just as a Greek person might enjoy a stroll along the beach, consider walking or biking to work tomorrow.
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