Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?
How to tell if the Mediterranean diet for you.
If you’re just joining us, we’re in the middle of a month-long series looking at the pros and cons of various diet philosophies. And by “diet,” I don’t just mean a weight loss program. The discussion also applies to diet in the more general sense of how your food choices support or undermine your health. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of that, of course, but it’s not the only factor.
My goal in this series is not to decide which diet philosophy is “right” but to help you figure out what approach is the best fit for your lifestyle, preferences, and biochemistry—because I think that gives you a better shot at long-term success.
What is the Best Diet?
Two weeks ago, I talked about the rationale behind low-carb diets and invited you to try out the concept by eliminating refined carbohydrates from your diet for one week. Last week, I talked about some of the surprising reasons we eat a lot more than we mean to—or should. Last week’s experiment involved changing some of the external factors that lead to overeating.
This week, I want to change gears one more time. We’re going to leave the nutritional biochemistry and behavioral psychology aside for the moment and transport ourselves to the azure waters and sunny shores of Greece. Because there’s another very popular diet theory that claims that you can be healthier simply by adopting a Mediterranean-style diet and lifestyle.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
Of course, there’s no such thing as a single “Mediterranean diet.” There are over a dozen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and a lot of different dietary patterns even within those countries. What we now recognize as the Mediterranean diet pattern really reflects the traditional eating habits of the coastal fishing villages of Greece, Southern Italy, and Crete.
Back in the 1940’s, epidemiologists—who are basically statisticians who focus on health—noticed that people from Crete seemed to live longer and stay healthier than people in Northern Europe and North America. A lot healthier. So they took a closer look at how and what the people there ate—specifically, how their diet differed from the typical diet in less healthy regions.
They noticed that the Cretans ate a lot less meat and poultry than other Westerners. When they did eat animal protein, it was more likely to be fish, which was not surprising, seeing as most people made their living fishing. They also ate a lot more fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes and fewer processed, refined foods. They used a lot of olive oil. They tended to consume alcohol in moderation, mostly as red wine.
This dietary pattern has come to be known as the Mediterranean diet. When you compare the Mediterranean diet to, say, the dietary guidelines put forth by the American Heart Association, you’ll see that there are some interesting differences. For example, the Mediterranean diet is higher in fat than the AHA recommends. Despite that, the Mediterranean diet has become a popular and sanctioned alternative to the traditional low-fat heart-healthy diet.
Heck, there’s even a Mediterranean Food Pyramid. Here’s a link.