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Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

How to tell if the Mediterranean diet is right for you.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #078

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.

The podcast edition of this article was sponsored by  Audible.  Download one free audiobook when signing up for a 14 day trial. Details are at audiblepodcast.com/diva.

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.

Can a Mediterranean Diet Make You Healthier?

Lately, researchers have been busy trying to figure out whether people who don’t live in Crete can get healthier by eating as if they do. And the news so far has been pretty good.  Adopting the Mediterranean Diet appears to reduce the risk of all kinds of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Type 2 diabetes, and depression. Click here for summaries of recent research.

It also appears to be a very effective way to lose weight and keep it off.  Compared with people on low-fat and low-carb regimens, folks following a Mediterranean diet lose just as much weight. More importantly, they tend to keep it off longer, perhaps because they find the diet satisfying and easy to stick with.

I think one of the reasons people seem to flourish on the Mediterranean diet is that it doesn’t feel like a diet.

The Mediterranean Diet Isn’t Really a Diet

It’s a style of eating that focuses on positives (like eating more fresh vegetables) rather than negatives (like cutting out bread). Click here for more on this theory.

Another thing I particularly like about the Mediterranean diet is that it defies the attempts of food manufacturers to reduce every diet trend into a new category of junk food. When low-fat diets were popular, manufacturers rushed to produce hundreds of new low-fat cookies and treats. They were low in fat but high in sugar, and it turned out to be pretty easy to gain weight eating low-fat foods.

Then, when low-carb diets came into fashion, the shelves were flooded with sugar- and carb-free meal replacement bars and drinks. They’re low in carbs all right, but four dozen unpronounceable chemicals listed as “ingredients” on the label makes me wonder if this really can be considered food.

Instead of focusing on calories or fat or carbs, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes flavor, freshness, and the social and aesthetic pleasures of cooking and eating. Good nutrition and healthy bodies follow naturally—or so the argument goes.

Is the Mediterranean Diet A Good Fit For You?

But in order to make it work, you’ve got to buy into the whole thing.  If you don’t have time to shop for fresh ingredients, the skills or desire to cook meals from scratch, or the inclination to make meal times as much about relaxing and spending time with people as they are about refueling, this may not be the approach for you.

But why not try it for a week and see how it works?  The basic principles are fairly simple.

How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet

  1. Make whole foods the base of every meal. Build most meals on whole fruits and vegetables, grains, and legumes.

  2. Reach for the olive oil. Use olive oil as your main source of fat; use butter sparingly (for tips on using olive oil, check out this episode of my show).

  3. If you eat animal products, be moderate. Eat fish often, eggs and/or dairy less often, and meat least often.

  4. Avoid processed and refined foods. Try to minimize your consumption of packaged foods and sweets.

  5. Live it, don’t diet. Enjoy your food and the time you spend preparing and eating it as much as possible.

Below, you’ll find links to some websites with recipes and other suggestions. At the end of the week, I’ll be interested to hear how your experiment went.  In particular,

  1. Did you feel more or less hungry than usual?

  2. Did you find yourself eating more or less at meals?

  3. Did you find yourself eating more or less often?

  4. Did you find it difficult or inconvenient to stick to the rules?

  5. Did you notice any differences in your energy levels or mood?

  6. Could you imagine continuing the experiment for more than a week?

  7. How would you rate the overall quality and balance of your diet? Better or worse than usual?

Feel free to post your thoughts in the comment section below, on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page, or on Twitter. Next week, I’ll be back with the thrilling conclusion to our five-part series on finding the best diet for you.

Keep in Touch

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voice mail at 206-203-1438. 

You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page or on Twitter.  I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Healthy Mediterranean Recipes (Eating Well Magazine)

Mediterranean Diet Recipes (Epicurious.com)

Grilled Fish image courtesy of Shutterstock

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