The Mediterranean Diet
People seeking a diet steeped in history and based on geography may want to check out the Mediterranean Diet. This heart-healthy diet includes the food staples of people who live in the 16 countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece and Italy.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods with healthy fats — those containing omega-3 fatty acids — plus other foods that support a heart-healthy diet. “This diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil,” says Nancy L. Cohen, PhD, RD, professor and head of the department of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “Mediterranean diets also tend to be low in red meat, and use yogurt and cheese as dairy products. The diet also recommends red wine in moderation.”
The Mediterranean: How Does It Work?
The Mediterranean diet was not purposely developed as a weight-loss or heart disease prevention diet, but rather evolved naturally over centuries based on the foods available in the region. Studies of large numbers of people following it reveal its health benefits — research suggests that the Mediterranean diet is protective against heart disease and can improve the way your body processes blood sugar and insulin. “The diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats that can help protect your heart,” says nutritionist Judy Penta, BS, a certified holistic health counselor and personal trainer with Patients Medical in New York City. “Also, the high consumption of fruits and vegetables strengthens your body against cancer and heart disease by providing plenty of valuable antioxidants.”
The Mediterranean Diet: Sample Diet
Other than limiting red meats, processed meats, and some dairy, the Mediterranean diet offers a wide variety of meal options based on whole, fresh foods. From cheese and veggie-laden pizzas to cooked veggies and rice dishes, you can plan quite a feast. A single Mediterranean diet meal might feature:
- Mediterranean-style vegetable or bean-based soup, such as minestrone or lentil soup
- Whole-grain roll or flatbread
- Grilled or steamed seafood
- Cooked fresh vegetables, such as spinach
- Fresh salad with oil and vinegar dressing
- Fruit for dessert
The Mediterranean Diet: Pros
There are several benefits to the Mediterranean Diet both for weight loss and overall well-being:
Health benefits. “This diet has many health benefits, including cardiovascular health and improvement in insulin sensitivity,” says Cohen.
Healthy fats. While this is not a low-fat diet, it “uses olive oil, fish oils, and nut-based oils as healthful sources of fats,” Cohen adds.
Stick-with-it ability. One of the most important elements of any successful diet is whether you can maintain it over the long haul. Cohen says that this is a diet most people could stick to: “It is an appealing diet that one can stay with for a lifetime.”
The Mediterranean Diet: Cons
Cohen points out that there are few reasons to be concerned about this diet over the long-term, but that people should be aware of:
Keeping up your calcium. The Mediterranean diet does not include a lot of milk or dairy products, other than some cheese and yogurt. As a result, people who follow it have to pay attention to their calcium intake. “To get enough calcium in the diet without milk, one would need to eat enough yogurt and cheese, or seek non-dairy calcium sources,” says Cohen. There are some vegetable sources of calcium, but if you really like milk, you can simply add skim to your diet.
Watching the wine. Red wine is part of the diet, but Cohen says this does not mean you can go overboard. “Don’t drink more than one to two glasses per day, and recognize that some studies link alcohol consumption to breast cancer,” Cohen says.
Putting a cap on fat. As with wine, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. Eat fats, even healthy fats containing omega-3 fatty acids, in moderation. The American Heart Association points out that while the Mediterranean diet meets hearth-healthy diet limits for saturated fat, your total fat consumption could be greater than the daily recommended amount if you aren’t careful.
Brushing up on cooking skills. This diet relies heavily on your ability to cook and, although it is easy to follow, some people may be on a learning curve as they improve their cooking skills.
The Mediterranean Diet: Short- and Long-Term Effects
A recent analysis of research studies involving more than 1,500,000 adults showed that, over the long term, those who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely than their peers to:
- Develop or die from cancer
- Develop Alzheimer’s disease
- Develop Parkinson’s disease
- Develop or die from heart disease
The more closely participants adhered to the Mediterranean diet, the better their long-term health outcomes were. Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet also has beneficial effects on fasting blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. In general, eating in this way has been shown to have long-term health benefits.
Of course, many people are interested in weight loss in addition to creating a healthy diet. In a study comparing a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet with two other diet types (a low-calorie/ low-fat diet and a low-carbohydrate/non-restricted calorie diet), people lost about eight pounds over the course of two years on the Mediterranean diet, significantly more than those in the low-calorie/low-fat diet plan and just slightly less than those on the low-carb plan.
For better health, steady weight loss, and a tasty regimen that has staying power, the Mediterranean diet is a plan worth trying.