In the Western world, people often go on diets with the intention to lose excess weight. Fad diets may help dieters drop pounds initially, but weight is usually gained back later in life or when individuals’ meal plans fall astray from the regimented diet guidelines.
The Mediterranean diet is recognized worldwide as an ideal diet that promotes lifelong health and well-being. Unlike popular Western diets, the Mediterranean diet focuses on which foods can be eaten and how they can be combined and cooked to produce maximum flavor, rather than being solely concerned about which food to avoid and deprive the body of.
According to Oldways, an international non-profit organization that promotes healthy eating, the Mediterranean diet is a “lifestyle” that combines various aspects of life including exercise, food and socializing with family and friends.
Mediterranean Diet Food Groups
The majority of meals from the Mediterranean are composed of foods from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, seeds and breads. Oldways says plant food should be incorporated in all meals and come most often from locally grown sources. Compared to processed and packaged food, fresh and locally harvested plant-based food are full of nourishing vitamins and nutrients. When eating starches such as bread and rice, whole grain ones are the healthiest. According to WebMD, unprocessed and natural whole grains contain fibers and nutrients which fight cancers and heart disease. The fiber in fruits, vegetables and whole grains also satisfies the body when it is hungry, making it fuller and more energized for an extended time.
Olive Oil and Healthy Fats
“The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn’t on limiting total fat consumption, but rather to make wise choices about the types of fat you eat,” mayoclinic.com said. Unhealthy fats, like packaged foods, butter or margarine, saturated fats and trans fats (hydrogenated oils), may cause weight gain and heart disease, but choosing healthy fats like nuts and seeds, olive oil and fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, sardines) can be beneficial to the body.
Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and can often be used in place of butter or margarine. According to WebMD, a study at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center discovered that olive oil’s compound oleocanthal can fight heart disease, inflammation, many cancers, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. Incorporate olive oil into a diet by dipping bread in olive oil rather than spreading on butter, mixing it with pasta, eating olive oil with fish, or using it in cakes. Omega-3’s, found in some fish and nuts including walnuts and almonds, are associated with decreased heart disease, lowered blood pressure, and reduced body fats and inflammation. Oldways suggests consuming fish at least twice a week.
The Mediterranean diet contains little red meat. When red meat is eaten, mayoclinic.com suggests only consuming lean red meats and reducing red meat portions to the size of a card deck. Instead of eating red meat weekly, try replacing it with healthier choices such as poultry or fish. People who follow a Mediterranean diet eat red meat only a couple times a month, according to oldwayspt.org.
Eggs and Dairy Products
Cheese, yogurt and milk exist in the Mediterranean diet, but the dairy products are usually consumed as low-fat versions such as Greek or fat-free yogurt, skim or low-fat milk, and healthy cheeses such as feta, ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Eggs, which are packed with rich proteins and vitamins, are consumed often in a Mediterranean diet. Oldways recommends eating a maximum of seven eggs weekly, including whole and cooked in baked goods.
Fresh fruit is a common dessert in the Mediterranean diet. Try eating a variety of fruits cut up in a fruit salad, or top a sliced fruit with honey for a healthy sweet. WebMD states, eating fruit as dessert brings the body nutrients and satisfies a sweet craving without gaining excess sugars and fats from processed desserts. Desserts like cake, cookies and ice cream don’t need to be eliminated, but in the Mediterranean diet, they are usually saved for special occasions or eaten 2-3 times per week.
Red wine has been proven to help prevent heart disease and some cancers. In the Mediterranean diet, red wine is part of the culture and is usually paired with dinner as a drink. However, red wine should only be consumed in moderation. Oldwayspt.org considers 1-2 daily glasses for men and 1 daily glass for women as healthy amounts. If you don’t drink wine, Mayo Clinic says grape juice can be a nutritious alternative.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices may not be foods eaten on their own, but the flavor and richness they add to meals are a major part of the Mediterranean diet. Certain herbs and spices are associated with healing medical issues, and when substituted for salt, they serve as a healthier seasoning.
For a full list of typical Mediterranean diet foods in each food category, look at:
Eating certain foods is not the only aspect of the Mediterranean diet. “Other vital elements of the Mediterranean Diet are daily exercise, sharing meals with others, and fostering a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods,” Oldways said. Daily exercise of the Mediterranean diet is not considered to be running five miles or lifting weights. Because people of Mediterranean region countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain walk to buy groceries or stroll to meet with a friend, fitness comes naturally. If distance permits, consider walking rather than driving to the store or suggest riding bikes instead of seeing a movie when getting together with a friend.
Reviewed August 2, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Shannon Koehle