- The Mediterranean Diet
- Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet
- Myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet
- How to make the change
- Quick start to a Mediterranean diet
- 90.9 WBUR wbur
- 7 Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
- Where did it come from?
- What foods can I eat on this diet?
- Focus on eating:
- What foods should I avoid?
- The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
- 1. The Mediterranean diet helps protect against type 2 diabetes.
- 2. The Mediterranean diet maintains heart health.
- 3. The Mediterranean diet keeps you agile as you age.
- 4. The Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- 5. The Mediterranean diet halves your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
- 6. The Mediterranean diet encourages healthy weight loss.
- 7. The Mediterranean diet helps fight cancer.
- 8. The Mediterranean diet protects cognitive health.
- 9. The Mediterranean diet encourages relaxation.
- 10. The Mediterranean diet can enhance your mood.
- 11. The Mediterranean diet fights inflammation.
- 12. The Mediterranean diet improves the health of your skin.
- 13. The Mediterranean diet can relieve pain.
- 14. The Mediterranean diet can improve fertility.
- 15. The Mediterranean diet increases your longevity.
- What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?
- – Pasta and bread are not your main course.
- – It isn’t as expensive as you might think.
- – Ensure ongoing success by eliminating temptations.
- – This is a lifestyle change.
- How can I get started?
The Mediterranean Diet
When you think about Mediterranean food, your mind may go to pizza and pasta from Italy, or lamb chops from Greece, but these dishes don’t fit into the healthy dietary plans advertised as “Mediterranean.” A true Mediterranean diet is based on the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive oil, and dairy—with perhaps a glass or two of red wine. That’s how the inhabitants of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy ate circa 1960, when their rates of chronic disease were among the lowest in the world and their life expectancy among the highest, despite having only limited medical services.
And the real Mediterranean diet is about more than just eating fresh, wholesome food. Daily physical activity and sharing meals with others are vital elements of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. Together, they can have a profound effect on your mood and mental health and help you foster a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.
Of course, making changes to your diet is rarely easy, especially if you’re trying to move away from the convenience of processed and takeout foods. But the Mediterranean diet can be an inexpensive as well as a satisfying and very healthy way to eat. Making the switch from pepperoni and pasta to fish and avocados may take some effort, but you could soon be on a path to a healthier and longer life.
Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet
A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil—coupled with physical activity—can reduce your risk of serious mental and physical health problems by:
Preventing heart disease and strokes. Following a Mediterranean diet limits your intake of refined breads, processed foods, and red meat, and encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor—all factors that can help prevent heart disease and stroke.
Keeping you agile. If you’re an older adult, the nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70 percent.
Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and overall blood vessel health, which in turn may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Halving the risk of Parkinson’s disease. The high levels of antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet can prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called oxidative stress, thereby cutting the risk of Parkinson’s disease in half.
Increasing longevity. By reducing your risk of developing heart disease or cancer with the Mediterranean diet, you’re reducing your risk of death at any age by 20%.
Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber which digests slowly, prevents huge swings in blood sugar, and can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet
Following a Mediterranean diet has many benefits, but there are still a lot of misconceptions on exactly how to take advantage of the lifestyle to lead a healthier, longer life. The following are some myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet.
Myths and facts of a Mediterranean diet
Myth 1: It costs a lot to eat this way.
Fact: If you’re creating meals out of beans or lentils as your main source of protein, and sticking with mostly plants and whole grains, then the Mediterranean diet is less expensive than serving dishes of packaged or processed foods.
Myth 2: If one glass of wine is good for your heart, then three glasses is three times as healthy.
Fact: Moderate amounts of red wine (one drink a day for women; two for men) certainly has unique health benefits for your heart, but drinking too much has the opposite effect. Anything more than two glasses of wine can actually be bad for your heart.
Myth 3: Eating large bowls of pasta and bread is the Mediterranean way.
Fact: Typically, Mediterraneans don’t eat a huge plate of pasta the way Americans do. Instead, pasta is usually a side dish with about a 1/2-cup to 1-cup serving size. The rest of their plate consists of salads, vegetables, fish or a small portion of organic, grass-fed meat, and perhaps one slice of bread.
Myth 4: The Mediterranean diet is only about the food.
Fact: The food is a huge part of the diet, yes, but don’t overlook the other ways the Mediterraneans live their lives. When they sit down for a meal, they don’t sit in front of a television or eat in a rush; they sit down for a relaxed, leisurely meal with others, which may be just as important for your health as what’s on your plate. Mediterraneans also enjoy plenty of physical activity.
How to make the change
If you’re feeling daunted by the thought of changing your eating habits to a Mediterranean diet, here are some suggestions to get you started:
Eat lots of vegetables. Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese, or load your thin crust pizza with peppers and mushrooms instead of sausage and pepperoni. Salads, soups, and crudité platters are also great ways to load up on vegetables.
Always eat breakfast. Fruit, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you pleasantly full for hours.
Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, sablefish (black cod), and sardines are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.
Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. If it’s helpful, you can jump on the “Meatless Mondays” trend of foregoing meat on the first day of the week, or simply pick a day where you build meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week.
Enjoy dairy products in moderation. The USDA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of your daily calories (about 200 calories for most people). That still allows you to enjoy dairy products such as natural (unprocessed) cheese, Greek or plain yogurt.
For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream, cake or other baked goods, opt for strawberries, fresh figs, grapes, or apples.
Use good fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals.
What to do about mercury in fish
Despite all the health benefits of seafood, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of pollutants, including the toxic metal mercury. These guidelines can help you make the safest choices.
- The concentration of mercury and other pollutants increases in larger fish, so it’s best to avoid eating large fish like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.
- Most adults can safely eat about 12 ounces (two 6-ounce servings) of other types of cooked seafood a week.
- Pay attention to local seafood advisories to learn if fish you’ve caught is safe to eat.
- For women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and children aged 12 and younger, choose fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, or catfish. Because of its higher mercury content, eat no more than 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
The simple act of talking to a friend or loved over the dinner table can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting mood. Eating with others can also prevent overeating, making it as healthy for your waistline as it is for your outlook. Switch off the TV and computer, put away your smartphone, and connect to someone over a meal.
Gather the family together and stay up to date with each other’s daily lives. Regular family meals provide comfort to kids and are a great way to monitor their eating habits as well.
Share meals with others to expand your social network. If you live alone, cook a little extra and invite a friend, coworker, or neighbor to join you.
Cook with others. Invite a friend to share shopping and cooking responsibilities for a Mediterranean meal. Cooking with others can be a fun way to deepen relationships and splitting the costs can make it cheaper for both of you.
Quick start to a Mediterranean diet
The easiest way to make the change to a Mediterranean diet is to start with small steps. You can do this by:
- Sautéing food in olive oil instead of butter.
- Eating more fruits and vegetables by enjoying salad as a starter or side dish, snacking on fruit, and adding veggies to other dishes.
- Choosing whole grains instead of refined breads, rice, and pasta.
- Substituting fish for red meat at least twice per week.
- Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole milk
|Instead of this:||Try this Mediterranean option:|
|Chips, pretzels, crackers and ranch dip||Carrots, celery, broccoli and salsa|
|White rice with stir-fried meat||Quinoa with stir-fried vegetables|
|Sandwiches with white bread or rolls||Sandwich fillings in whole-wheat tortillas|
|Ice cream||Pudding made with skim or 1% milk|
For some of us, the more we understand about why we need to do something, the likelier we are to do it.
So if you already know you’ll soon resolve to eat a healthier diet — in particular, the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet — a new study that helps explain its health benefits might add some impetus.
I spoke with senior author Dr. Samia Mora, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and have lightly edited our conversation below.
What did you set out to find?
We set out to see whether women who were eating a Mediterranean-type diet in the U.S. had reduced risk of vascular events over a long-term period, which was about 12 years. And if so, how can that be?
And what did you find?
We found that women who were more closely following a Mediterranean-type dietary pattern were indeed at reduced risk for cardiovascular events over about 12 years. They had about a 25 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke and vascular death.
And that we could explain a lot of that benefit by looking at inflammatory bio-markers that were improved, as well as bio-markers related to glucose and insulin resistance, as well as body adiposity.
There were also some other beneficial effects on blood pressure and lipids and some other metabolites that also contributed to that benefit.
I would have expected more than 25 percent….
Actually, 25 percent improvement is similar to what people find for medications that people use for preventing cardiovascular disease, such as statins, which are commonly prescribed, and it’s even greater than what’s seen for aspirin. The benefit from a Mediterranean diet has ranged anywhere from about 10 percent up to about 40 percent, depending on the studies.
Your study included about 26,000 women. Is there any reason to think findings in men would be different?
There’s no reason to think that, based on the prior data from studies that included both men and women.
If I were your patient, how would you explain to me why the Mediterranean diet is good for my body?
Well, the best news is that it’s a combination of different foods that you would be eating. It’s really a lot of fruits and vegetables and nuts and legumes and olive oil, and decreasing your amount of red meat and saturated fat and simple sugars. So the health benefits are actually very varied.
As we found in our study, there are many pathways that it affects. We, of course, did not study all the pathways out there. So there are probably additional pathways that could also be contributing.
But we know inflammation had a big effect, and many people suffer from inflammation, and inflammation has a strong risk with vascular events. We also found improvements in insulin resistance — in the way the body metabolizes the glucose, the sugars, that we eat. That was really improved as well.
And even the weight. Some people think, Oh, if I follow the Mediterranean diet, will my weight increase? In fact, the body mass index was lower, and that’s actually what’s also been found in some other studies, that it is also improved by the Mediterranean diet.
Also, it affected blood pressure, and even cholesterol — in particular for HDL, which is supposedly the good cholesterol, as well as reducing the triglycerides. So there were these many ways that it contributed.
And what we know from other studies is that even a two-point difference in adherence to the Mediterranean diet on a 15-point scale leads to a substantial improvement in reducing cardiovascular events.
At the end of the paper, though, you seem to be saying there’s still some mystery about how the diet affects our bodies.
Yes. We did not examine all the potential pathways out there. We examined many of the leading pathways that we know can be related to cardiovascular disease.
But there are other pathways — for example, the Mediterranean diet also has been shown to have anti-arrhythmic properties, preventing people from having heart arrhythmia, which we did not really have a good measure of in our study. We didn’t have a really good measure of other pathways, such as vascular function — how healthy the blood vessels in our bodies are.
So we weren’t able to measure everything out there; we had measurements for quite a few different pathways but there could be new novel pathways out there as well.
But I think the take-home point is that even small changes in these things, which may not be clinically even noticeable from day to day or from year to year, can cumulatively, in a multi-factorial fashion, really contribute to the benefit over the long term.
So even if I don’t lose weight today or tomorrow with having a more Mediterranean-type diet, it is still benefiting me. So I can’t focus on necessarily my weight changing or my blood pressure changing from day to day, because these small effects can have cumulative effects in the really long term.
Is it clear which elements of the diet matter most?
In fact, we still don’t know which particular element of the Mediterranean diet help more than others. So people can choose from the vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil — especially the extra virgin olive oil — and from other other things as well, such as increasing their fish intake, decreasing the red meat and the saturated fats and the simple sugars and processed foods. You have a variety of foods that you can mix and match and still have benefit from them.
It is said to be better at lowering cholesterol than statins, and able to prevent dementia and heart disease, and will not make you fat. Anything that good for you might be expected to smell foul and come in a medicine bottle, but the Mediterranean diet is generally considered to be delicious, except by those who hate olive oil.
It is a potential answer to the obesity crisis crippling healthcare systems, but few understand exactly what the diet is and most of us do not follow it, including increasing numbers of people who live in the Mediterranean. The scientist Ancel Keys and the cookery writer Elizabeth David, two of the pioneers who helped open the eyes of northern Europeans to the wonders of the Mediterranean diet, must be turning in their graves.
We are constantly presented with paeans to the Mediterranean way of life and were faced with yet another this week, when a study presented at a heart disease conference in Rome claimed that those who ate a diet rich in vegetables, nuts, fish and oils were 37% less likely to die early than those who ate red meat and butter.
But ask anybody what the Mediterranean diet actually is and few will give you the same answer. It is not a weight-loss regime such as the Atkins or Dukan diets. It is actually not a prescriptive diet at all, rather a pattern of eating. In spite of the name, it has less and less in common with the way that many people in southern Europe live and eat today.
In the Greek tavernas, thronged with British holidaymakers in the summer months, the Mediterranean diet so highly regarded by health experts can turn into a lamb kebab with rice and chips, washed down with lager. Pasta, which has historically been a smaller primi (first) dish, overflows the enormous bowls in which it is served in many Italian restaurants. The French have finally lost the battle against the Big Mac.
Seafood, including octopus, is a component of the traditional Mediterranean diet, but consumption varied according to location. Photograph: Alamy
The Mediterranean diet is based on a rural life where people ate what they grew, which is fast disappearing. The UN has recognised the diet as an endangered species. In 2013, Unesco listed the Mediterranean diet as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal.
Even health experts and nutritionists differ on the detail of the Mediterranean diet, but the principles are fairly clear. It is about an eating style based on large amounts of fruit and vegetables, legumes such as beans, lentils, peas and peanuts, whole grains and especially olive oil.
Fish and seafood are part of it, but their consumption varied in the past according to how close people lived to the sea. Chicken, eggs and small amounts of dairy, such as cheese and yoghurt, are there in moderation, but red meat and sweets would rarely be consumed. The diet includes a small amount of wine with meals. Pasta, bread and potatoes are variables from one region to another. It is quite a high-carbohydrate diet, which was fine when people were physically active on farms or fishing boats.
Notably, none of this comes in a box. The supermarket spaghetti bolognese does not count. The Mediterranean diet has no preservatives. It is freshly picked, plucked and cooked.
The use of olive oil is interesting, according to Tom Sanders, an emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, who has carried out studies involving Mediterranean diets. “If you are trying to get people to eat a lot of vegetables and salad, it’s quite difficult to do without oil,” he says. “And if you are putting oil on top of salad, it also has a bit of a satiating effect. Aubergines or tomatoes in oil – you can have enough of that quite quickly. Whereas something that you’ve got saturated fat in, such as cake or biscuits, it’s easy to knock them back and you don’t realise how much is going in.”
But there is more to the Mediterranean diet than the food on the plate. Unesco waxes wistfully lyrical on a whole idealised lifestyle that may appear to have little to do with the modern Mediterranean as we know it. “The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.
“Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity,” the citation says.
Fresh produce at a street market stall in Naples, Italy. The key element of the diet is eating a large amount of vegetables. Photograph: Alamy
“The Mediterranean diet emphasises values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity.”
Shared family meals, it is now widely understood, help people eat well and avoid excess, while the TV dinner habit is linked to obesity.
Keys, a Minnesota academic, started to investigate the health benefits of Mediterranean eating in the 1950s, after a visit to Naples. He was concerned about the large numbers of men dying from heart attacks in the US. An Italian colleague had told him that the heart attack rate among labourers in the Neapolitan area was low. It led to the Seven Countries Study, an enormous project that continues today. The first pilot studies were set up in Nicotera, a village in Calabria, southern Italy, and in six villages on Crete.
The study compared middle-aged men with different lifestyles and diet: on the US railroads, in the villages of North Karelia, Finland, where many men died as a result of heart disease, in the Netherlands, in Italian villages, but also workers on the railroads in Rome, in Crete and Corfu, in villages in Croatia, and in farming and fishing communities in Japan.
It uncovered a link between eating high levels of saturated fat, found in red meat and dairy products, and cholesterol in the blood, and heart disease. The scientists could not prove that saturated fats were the cause, but the finger of suspicion was firmly pointed, leading to changed dietary guidelines in the US and the eventual craze for low-fat everything, with the resulting rise and rise of sugar to make processed food and drinks taste better. Keys has more recently been heavily criticised for opposing John Yudkin, who argued in the 1970s that sugar, not fat, was the problem.
Nowadays, Mediterranean food is often served with chips, while in Italy, pasta has gone from being a small first course to a larger main course. Photograph: Alamy
What did not happen as a result of the study was the wholescale adoption of the Mediterranean diet, although Keys, who died aged 100 in 2004, promoted it in popular books and practised what he preached.
David, a debutante, adventurer and lover of the Mediterranean sunshine, had an influence with her articles and books, describing dishes with aubergines, courgettes and other exotica that were all but unavailable in northern Europe in the 1950s and 60s. But the era of convenience food and the sheer quantity that became available, whether in supermarkets or from takeaways, had a greater impact on working populations.
Nonetheless, Sanders says northern Europe is generally healthier than the Mediterranean regions. Things have changed.
“That sort of diet was accompanied by quite a lot of physical activity. There were moderate intakes of wine, but it wasn’t huge: it was about 300ml or 400ml at most a day. And these guys, particularly in Crete, which was looked at, were pretty active and were quite thin.
“If you look at a follow-up of their kids, the second generation in the Seven Countries Study, they tend to be overweight and eating something quite different – a lot more deep fried food. The equivalent of Colonel Sanders really. And what you are seeing in southern Europe, Greece, is one of the highest increases in rates of cardiovascular disease, so there’s been a switchover.
Obesity is increasing in Greece, which topped the OECD childhood obesity league in 2014, ahead of the US, Italy and Mexico. Photograph: Alamy
“If we look at life expectancy, I think it’s longest in Iceland. Whereas southern European countries, they still have a lot of poverty and they’re not doing so well. And they’re becoming more sedentary.”
Greece topped the OECD child obesity league published in 2014, using data from 2010, with 44% of boys aged 5-17 overweight, followed by Italy on 36%. Both countries had higher rates than the US and Mexico.
Studies continue to show the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. In June, the respected Predimed study in Spain found that overweight and obese people, with heart disease and diabetes, who ate a Mediterranean-style diet high in vegetable fat, because of additional olive oil or nuts, did not gain weight, compared with people on a low-fat diet.
There is no doubt that the Mediterranean diet is good for you. But shifting the habits of nations to adopt, cook and eat it regularly in societies dominated by packaged food manufacturers is quite a task.
7 Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
Out of all the trendy diets you could choose, following a Mediterranean diet is not only delicious (and may make you feel like you’re on vacay in Greece), it could boost your health. Packed with fruits and veggies, fish, whole grains, and healthful fats, the Mediterranean diet could help manage your weight, benefit your brain, improve heart health, and maybe even help you live longer. Watch the video above or scroll down to learn about the seven ways you can improve your health by eating a Mediterranean Diet.
Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation.
The omega-3s in fish help keep skin cells strong and elastic.
May help ease pain
A compound in olive oil called oleocanthal may have a similar effect to NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin.
Could lower cancer risk
A Mediterranean diet may cut the risk of uterine and breast cancer.
Maintains heart health
While there has been some research to suggest that this diet supports heart health, a new study linked women who eat a Mediterranean diet to a 25% lower risk of heart disease. In the span of 12 years, researchers studied more than 25,000 women who consumed a diet high in plant-based foods, healthful fats, and olive oil (and low in meats and sugar), and found that this style of eating reduced inflammation, accounting for decreased risk of cardiovascular disease risk.
Keeps your brain sharp
Foods that are packed with antioxidants, like nuts and olive oil, may help delay the onset of mental decline.
Helps you live longer
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of fruits, vegetables, and olive oil may help fight oxidative damage linked to aging.
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Where did it come from?
Potentially the world’s healthiest way of eating, the Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods that were consumed by populations in Italy and Greece throughout history. The diet emphasizes produce, fish, whole grains, and health fats – encouraging a high intake of fiber, moderate consumption of meats and alcohol, and tons of antioxidants. Followers of this diet will also enjoy meals with their loved ones – cooking as a family, eating as a family, and sharing a glass of red wine after dinner as a family.
Eating plenty of fresh, non-starchy produce is key to the Mediterranean diet. You’ll want to shoot for at least five servings each day, with each serving being approximately one cup of raw produce. Healthy fats are also encouraged – coming from things like olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocado.
Editor’s Note: This article was graciously provided by Jen Reviews. To read more excellent and informative articles on health fads, diets, and more, head on over to Jen Reviews.
Legumes not only contain a ton of these necessary fats, but add a hefty boost of protein – and lean protein from non-meat sources is another cornerstone of this diet. To follow the Mediterranean diet as recommended, aim to eat a serving of legumes (a half-cup, cooked) at least twice a week, and a small handful of nuts every day.
Protein from fish and eggs is also encouraged – two to three times each week. Dairy protein, derived from milk products like yogurt and fresh cheeses, should be consumed daily. Try to get one to three servings of dairy, one cup of milk or yogurt or one ounce of cheese. Lean meats and poultry are welcome in the diet, but these are to be enjoyed in moderation.
Carbohydrates are included in this diet, as well. Refined carbs, however, are discouraged – as these will cause issues with your blood sugar. Aim for four small portions of whole grain carbs each day – whole-wheat bread, pasta made from quinoa, or sprouted or fermented grains. These should always be consumed with healthy fats and protein, to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
You should also enhance your meals with fresh herbs and spices, which are full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Drink plenty of water, but also coffee, tea, and even a glass of red wine each day.
This diet is a nutritional model based on the lifestyle of the people of the Mediterranean throughout their history – preserving their traditions and customs and encouraging things like seasonal eating, ethical choices, and even sustainable development. This area of the world is known by historians as “the cradle of society,” since it is within this region that the majority of ancient civilization took place.
As a diet, this model began increasing in popularity with Western societies after the 1950s. An American scientist, Ancel Keys, noticed that poor populations in the small towns of southern Italy were somehow healthier than most of New York’s wealthiest citizens. To determine how this was possible, Keys embarked on a study to determine the relationship between these populations to their diets – and the nutritional value of the foods the Mediterranean people were consuming.
In fact, this study inspired the first “Food Pyramid” released by the United States Department of Agriculture – a guideline developed to represent a fair and balanced way of eating. However, the processed and refined alternatives to the natural foods consumed by Mediterranean populations changed the way the diet impacted Western eaters.
The more modern concept behind the Mediterranean diet recognizes the havoc these foods can wreak on our bodies, and encourages healthier, more natural options – similar to those that would have been used by the ancient Mediterranean civilizations.
What foods can I eat on this diet?
The bulk of your diet should include natural, unprocessed Mediterranean foods. This diet is very unrestrictive, and you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of delicious foods. You might even discover some new favorites!
You should shoot for a wide variety of foods, to ensure that you’re getting a balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Whole, single ingredient foods are essential for making the most of your Mediterranean lifestyle.
Focus on eating:
– Nuts and seeds: Each day, eat a handful or more of almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds.
– Legumes: This will be a major source of fibre and protein for followers of this diet. Try to eat more beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, and more.
– Tubers: These starchy vegetables should be consumed in moderation, but are still an important part of this diet. Enjoy potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and yams.
– Whole grains: Avoid refined carbohydrates, but eat small servings of things like whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, and whole grains.
– Poultry: Occasionally, enjoy chicken, duck, turkey, or other birds.
– Eggs and dairy: Cheese, yogurt, and eggs are a great source of healthy fats and protein.
– Herbs and spices: Accentuate your meals with garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper.
– Heathy fats: This is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, so make sure you’re getting plenty of fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocado.
Also, you should be sure to drink plenty of water, as well as a moderate amount of red wine, coffee, and tea. Note that anyone with problems with alcohol consumption should avoid consuming wine, even though it is encouraged with this diet.
What foods should I avoid?
The main foods to stay away from to achieve the full benefits of the Mediterranean diet are foods with added sugars, foods that are heavily processed, and foods containing refined carbohydrates.
– Sodas, candies, ice cream, and anything else that lists sugar as an ingredient.
– Refined grains, including white bread and pasta made from refined wheat.
– Trans fats, which you can find in margarine and other processed foods.
– Refined oils, like canola oil, soybean oil, and more.
– Processed meat, like sausages and hot dogs.
– Highly processed foods, with labels like “low-fat” or “diet,” or anything that has a lengthy list of ingredients with chemical-sounding names.
You will need to learn to read ingredient lists to ensure that you avoid these unhealthy foods, but a good rule to follow is to stay away from things that look like they were made in a factory. Stick to natural, whole foods that actually look like foods.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Without having to limit your diet to any extremes, you can enjoy an improved quality of life and increased feelings of well-being thanks to this healthy, nutritious diet. You’ll notice a ton of great benefits once you start eating Mediterranean-style – especially affecting your heart health, brain health, and longevity. These are just some of the ways your body and mind will benefit from eating Mediterranean-diet approved foods.
1. The Mediterranean diet helps protect against type 2 diabetes.
Researchers compared the Mediterranean diet with several other healthy eating plans, including vegetarian, vegan, low-carbohydrate, high-fiber, high-protein, and low-glycemic index diets. In these studies, the Mediterranean diet actually revealed itself to be the more beneficial eating plan for diabetics or individuals with high blood sugar.
According to researchers, the emphasis on foods that are rich in monounsaturated fats and high in fibre like fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil is what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy – these have proven to lower blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetics. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats shows a positive effect on an individual’s insulin sensitivity.
2. The Mediterranean diet maintains heart health.
Typically, the incidence of heart disease is considerably lower in Mediterranean countries than in the United States, which can partly be attributed to the dietary choices made by individuals living there. The other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle, including more physical activity and valued social supports are also important in keeping your body – and heart – healthy.
This diet has proven to reduce risks of cardiovascular mortality, primarily due to its positive impacts on “bad” cholesterol – the oxidized low-density lipoproteins that can accumulate in deposits in your arteries. Not only is it the food you’re eating on a Mediterranean diet that helps keep your cardiovascular system strong, it’s also what you’re drinking.
Red wine, which the plan encourages in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. However, limit consumption to no more than five ounces daily for women or men over the age of 65, or more than ten ounces daily for men under the age of 65.
3. The Mediterranean diet keeps you agile as you age.
Thanks to all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you’ll be consuming in abundance on the Mediterranean diet, you’ll benefit from a reduced risk of developing muscle weakness or other indications of increasing frailty. In fact, seniors have shown this risk reduced by up to 70 per cent.
For anyone who plans to maintain an active lifestyle even into later adulthood, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins can be an important way to ensure lasting agility.
4. The Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Many of the benefits offered by this kind of nutritional plan include improved cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and the overall health of your blood vessels themselves. Together, these benefits work to reduce your risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Research has shown that for seniors, the Mediterranean diet can help protect against cognitive decline – enabling aging adults to preserve their quality of life and limit the burdens of illness, both social and economic. Doctors have long been encouraging patients to adopt healthier eating habits in line with this diet as a possible strategy to address dementia and other cognitive conditions.
5. The Mediterranean diet halves your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
With all of the healthy antioxidants you’ll get from eating a Mediterranean diet, you’ll be able to cut your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease almost in half. These antioxidants, which are found in the fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and seafood dishes encouraged by this eating plan, keep your cells from undergoing the process of oxidative stress, which causes high amounts of damage and can contribute to the development of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
Scientists are still researching the role of nutrition in neuroprotection and neurodegeneration, but so far, studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean diet provides many important benefits for people who show genetic susceptibility or who face environmental factors that will also contribute to these conditions.
6. The Mediterranean diet encourages healthy weight loss.
The main way this diet helps people lose weight is that it’s easier to stick in the long-term when compared with many other, more restrictive diets. Because you still get to eat most of your favorite foods, you’ll feel satiated and more likely to keep it up.
However, to see maximum weight loss benefits from this nutrition plan, you should expect to follow the Mediterranean diet for at least six months – forever, if you can. Also, incorporate some form of regular physical exercise into your lifestyle, and keep an eye on your portions. While you are encouraged to eat small amounts of breads and carbs on this diet, these can quickly add up if you’re not careful – and sabotage your weight loss goals.
7. The Mediterranean diet helps fight cancer.
Studies have shown that following this kind of eating plan can lead to a reduced risk of developing cancer, and cancer-related mortality. According to research, there is a “probable” protective role that the Mediterranean diet plays when it comes to cancer prevention. As well, studies have indicated a positive association between this lifestyle and specific cancer sites.
In particular, this diet has been especially effective at helping prevent the development of postmenopausal breast cancer – which is very good news, since this type of breast cancer often comes with a poor prognosis.
8. The Mediterranean diet protects cognitive health.
Not only will following this diet reduce your risk of developing degenerative cognitive conditions like dementia or Parkinson’s, it will actually improve your cognition. Studies indicate that followers of the Mediterranean diet benefit from enhanced memory and superior attention and focus. As well, the diet was associated with significant amelioration to the brain’s language capabilities.
This is certainly important for older adults who hope to fend off dementia, but it’s also great for younger people who want to maintain their brain function throughout their lives. You’ll experience better job performance, a healthier outlook, and considerably enhanced quality of life.
9. The Mediterranean diet encourages relaxation.
While following a Mediterranean diet, you should also look to adopt other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle – like making mealtime a more social experience and spending more time exercising and getting outside. These activities have a huge impact on your health, more than you might think. You’ll be eating nutritious healthy foods, and benefitting from a more positive lifestyle.
This lifestyle can give you better tools to manage life’s many stresses, leaving you feeling more upbeat, relaxed, and refreshed. Chronic stress can be incredibly damaging to your overall health and well-being, but the Mediterranean diet can help you fight it off. You’ll sleep better, enjoy more energy, and even build more substantial relationships with your loved ones.
10. The Mediterranean diet can enhance your mood.
People who suffer from mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and even ADHD can enjoy some of the brain-boosting benefits of the Mediterranean diet. These disorders can occur when your brain isn’t getting enough dopamine, which is the chemical responsible for thought processing, body movements, and mood regulation.
However, the healthy fats and probiotic foods included and encouraged through this eating plan help your body produce this chemical – keeping your mood elevated and your brain happy. They’ll also contribute to gut health, which is a major trigger for mood disorders.
While researchers recommend that people continue with regular treatment programs, switching up your diet to adopt a Mediterranean lifestyle can be a fantastic supplement to traditional therapies. With time, you may find that you no longer require pharmacological interference.
11. The Mediterranean diet fights inflammation.
Studies investigating the impact of a Mediterranean diet on inflammation biomarkers in high-risk individuals revealed that this kind of nutrition plan can reduce and regulate these markers – controlling inflammation within the body and preventing the many concerns and conditions that may arise from chronic inflammation.
Since a major trigger for inflammation is your body’s exposure to oxidative stress, the high concentration of antioxidants found in foods encouraged by the Mediterranean diet can make a huge impact on this system. You can take advantage of this impact even more by upping your intake of foods containing choline, which is found in egg yolks and soybeans, and betaine, which can be found in vegetables like beets and spinach.
12. The Mediterranean diet improves the health of your skin.
Dieticians will tell you that what the Mediterranean diet can do for your health, it can do for your skin. The health of your skin is crucial to your overall well-being, since this is your body’s major defense against the outside world. Sticking to the Mediterranean diet can help you enjoy glowing, radiant skin.
This eating plan encourages tons of olive oil, which is full of vitamin E and antioxidants that work to hydrate and nourish your skin. Red wine, which is recommended in moderation, contains resveratrol, which can even inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria. And tomatoes, another Mediterranean staple, helps protect skin cells – even helping prevent cancer caused by sun exposure.
13. The Mediterranean diet can relieve pain.
Staple foods of the Mediterranean diet, including magnesium-rich whole grains and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, can be included as a valuable part of your approach to pain management. Particularly for individuals who deal with chronic pain, this nutritional plan is a great way to reduce your dependence on pain-killers – which often come with a host of unpleasant side effects and could even lead to an addiction.
However, because this diet is so effective at reducing inflammation and relieving stress, you will see a big difference in how your body responds to pain. And thanks to the benefit of healthy weight loss, you may find that after a few months on the Mediterranean diet, your chronic pain could be a thing of the past.
To maximize the pain relieving benefit of this diet by boosting your intake of foods with magnesium, which is a mineral that has proven to fight muscle pain in several animal studies. This means eating more dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, beans and lentils, whole grains, and even dark chocolate.
14. The Mediterranean diet can improve fertility.
Through a study of nearly 500 women, researchers discovered that those who consumed greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, fish, and whole grains revealed increased fertility – even women who had previously struggled to become pregnant. While doctors will admit that more research needs to be done to see what kind of impact this diet has on a woman’s fertility, it is recommended that women who are hoping to conceive follow a diet similar to the Mediterranean eating plan.
Men can also benefit from consuming more antioxidant rice foods – mangoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots can help men develop heathier sperm, which will also help increase a couple’s chances of conceiving.
15. The Mediterranean diet increases your longevity.
Mortality statistics from 1960 to 1990 have offered “intriguing evidence” regarding the beneficial health of the people who live in the Mediterranean – and much of this research has pointed to their nutritious diet as the major factor behind this lifelong health. According to a study published in 2000, a diet that “adheres to the principles” of the traditional Mediterranean diet “is associated with longer survival.”
Not only that, but living your life according to Mediterranean tradition can make you considerably happier – thanks to your increased physical activity and strong, lasting social connections. Having something to live for tends to make people stick around longer, so it can be assumed that this kind of lifestyle lends itself well to increased longevity.
What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?
For those considering adopting the Mediterranean diet, congratulations! You’re well on your way to achieving a number of valuable health benefits and increased longevity – and you’ll be eating delicious, healthy meals with your friends and loved ones.
This is a great lifestyle for anyone to commit to, but there are a few things for you to keep in mind as you begin your journey to living the Mediterranean way. These tips will help you stay on track and quickly learn what it takes to maintain this healthy lifestyle.
– Pasta and bread are not your main course.
While this diet does allow you to continue consuming carbohydrates, keep in mind that Mediterranean people don’t indulge in massive bowls of bread and pasta the way Westerners do. Instead, these dishes are just supplementary parts of the meal. You won’t get the many benefits from this diet if you continue eating large helpings of carbs, which will cause your blood sugar to spike and lead to increased health concerns.
A typical Mediterranean plate will feature a heaping portion of vegetables and salad, a small portion of lean protein, a half-cup to one cup of pasta, and, occasionally, a piece of bread. Focus on real whole grains to benefit from the protein, fiber, and magnesium in these essential carbohydrates.
– It isn’t as expensive as you might think.
Often, people are discouraged from adopting this diet because of what they imagine will bring an added expense. However, when you’re eating more beans and legumes instead of pricier meats, and bulking up your meals with vegetables and whole grains, you’ll actually end up saving money – instead of spending your food budget on packaged foods or fast food.
With some solid meal planning, you’ll even be able to buy frequently used items in bulk – like olive oil, brown rice, and vegetables. Lots of these dry ingredients have a long shelf life, and extra vegetables can always be frozen and thawed out for later consumption. There are tons of ways to make this diet work for any budget, so don’t let things like an imagined expense keep you from making healthy changes.
– Ensure ongoing success by eliminating temptations.
This diet isn’t very restrictive, but you do need to stay away from unhealthy, processed foods if you want to achieve the full health benefits that the Mediterranean diet has to offer. This is a pretty general rule that can help you maintain any lifestyle change, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind whenever you’re embarking on a healthy diet plan.
Before stocking your kitchen with healthy, Mediterranean diet-approved foods, take time to go through your cupboards and clear out any processed junk that doesn’t add to your new lifestyle. These foods will only serve to derail you, so get rid of them by donating them to food banks or giving them to a shelter. Then, head to the grocery store with your shopping list and purchase the items that will support your healthy diet.
Also, if alcohol is a temptation for you, you should avoid including this aspect of the Mediterranean diet. While alcohol, in particular red wine, is encouraged in moderation, if limiting yourself is a problem, it’s better to keep it out of your diet entirely rather than risk frequent overindulgence – or even developing a problem.
– This is a lifestyle change.
While the food is a huge part of this diet, living your life in the Mediterranean style encompasses much more than just that. Don’t sit down for a meal in front of the television – sit with your family and friends to enjoy a leisurely dinner. This connection and relaxed dining experience is probably equally important for your health.
Not only will you enjoy the company of your loved ones, you’ll eat more slowly and savor each bite. This will help you learn to understand your body’s signals – so you’ll be more likely to eat when you’re hungry and recognize that you should stop eating when you’re full. You’ll understand how to eat until you’re satisfied, instead of until when your plate is clean.
Mediterranean people also benefit from plenty of exercise, so ensure that you’re getting enough physical activity each day. Park further away from your office or from the store, take the stairs whenever possible, and aim to spend at least twenty minutes a day doing exercise you enjoy.
How can I get started?
Since this diet is fairly unrestrictive, it’s easy to make the switch to eating Mediterranean-style. However, coming up with recipes can sometimes be challenging, especially if you’re not used to spending much time in the kitchen. Still, since this diet is all about eating whole, unprocessed foods, most Mediterranean diet recipes are fairly simple and easy to follow, even for inexperienced chefs.
These suggested recipes can help get you started on the Mediterranean diet, and will hopefully inspire you to come up with some recipes of your own. Head to the grocery store to grab these ingredients, and see if you can find other similar items to support your new lifestyle. Keep in mind that you should be shopping around the outside edges of the store – avoiding the inside aisles that will be full of processed foods and other junk.
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