What is the Mediterranean Diet and Why is it So Good?
The Mediterranean Diet has been touted as one of the healthiest diets in the world and for good reason. It is based on the diets in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea such as Greece, France, Morocco and Italy. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is a heart healthy diet with numerous health benefits including:
- Lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Prevents heart disease and stroke
- Lower risk of certain cancers
- Increased lifespan
- Reduced risk of certain forms of Dementia, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
- Protects against Type 2 Diabetes
- Improved healthy weight
One of the other great things about the Mediterranean Diet is that it is not a new “fad” diet full of restrictions and deprivation, but rather a diet that is based on centuries of healthy eating and delicious cuisine. Unfortunately, much of what American’s think of as Mediterranean food has been modified over the years into high fat, high calorie, low quality foods that increase health risks rather than improve health. Fortunately though, if you are a fan of the Americanized versions of Mediterranean fare though, you don’t have to go far to transform your diet into a super heart healthy diet that is full of flavor and variety.
How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is based on the principles of a healthy lifestyle: lots of physical activity coupled with a diet that is rich in plant based food sources – fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. The diet also includes lots of fish, healthy fats, and lean meats.
Mediterranean traditions focus around the enjoyment of sharing meals with friends and family and enjoying the pleasure of the meal, rather than eating on the go as is common for many American’s. They relax and enjoy a leisurely meal in the company of each other without television and other distractions. This stress free way of eating brings an emotional and psychological enjoyment to your relationship with food that creates its own benefits, and eating in a low stress manner improves digestion and assimilation of nutrients. I bet you feel better just imagining how nice it would be to enjoy your meals like that!
Guidelines for the Mediterranean Diet – What to Eat and What to Avoid:
Lots of fruits and veggies:
The bulk of the Mediterranean Diet is made up of plant based foods, so load up on a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day. Incorporate soups, fresh vegetable salads, vegetable snacks and cooked vegetables into your meals and snacks throughout the day to give you a wide range of vitamins, antioxidant’s and nutrients. Fruit makes great snacks, are full of fiber, vitamin C, antioxidants and nutrients, and are a great way to satisfy your craving for sweets in a healthy manner. Try to get around 8 servings of veggies a day.
Real Whole Grains:
Whole grains provide essential nutrients and fiber, and should make up a large part of your diet. Switch the bulk of your whole grains over to grains that are actually in whole form such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa. You can still have breads and pasta, but choose those that are made from whole grains rather than white pasta and breads. These should make up a much smaller portion of your whole grain intake. Contrary to popular practice in the US, pasta should be a side dish, not the centerpiece of the meal. Keep portions small (about ½ to 1 cup at most).
Healthy Fats and Oils:
As you might have guessed, Olive Oil is a staple part of the traditional Mediterranean Diet. It is one of the healthiest oils you can consume and is a great source of healthy fats. Olive Oil (Extra Virgin or Virgin) should be your primary cooking oil and should replace other fats like butter. Add some spices or a little balsamic vinegar to make a great dipping sauce for bread instead of butter or margarine.
Reduce your intake of red meat and add in more fish, poultry, legumes and nuts. This reduces saturated fats and the fish increases your Omega-3 fatty acids. Eat fresh fish, especially fatty fish like tuna and salmon at least twice a week (not fried). You will need to shift your focus in your meals – meats and fishes become the compliment to the meal rather than the focus. Your vegetables and whole grains are the centerpiece. When you do include red meats, choose lean cuts and watch your portion sizes. The meats and protein in the meal should be equivalent to the size of a deck of cards.
Get rid of processed snack foods and build in some nutrient dense, tasty and healthy alternatives. Nuts make a great healthy snack, are high in fiber and healthy fats. Keep nuts on hand for a quick snack throughout the day. Don’t overdo it, though. The bulk of calories from nuts are from fats, so you should only have a small handful. Avoid nuts with sugar or salt, too. You can also enjoy skim cheeses, low fat plain yogurt, veggies and fruits to snack on when you feel hungry between meals.
Enjoy a Glass of Wine:
Studies have shown that having a serving of alcohol such as a 5-ounce glass of wine with your meal can help raise HDL (good) cholesterol. While one glass is okay, more is not better in this case. Excess consumption of alcohol can be very damaging to your health. If you do not drink or have a challenge with alcohol, then you need not start. If this is not an issue for you, having a glass of wine or a beer with your meal does bring some health benefits.
Herbs and Spices: If you have ever had any Mediterranean cuisine, you know that spices are what make the meal. Herbs and spices add huge flavor, limiting the need for salt, sugar and extra fat. They also add in additional nutrients and health benefits to your meal.
Move Your Body:
It’s not just about the food. Diet matters, but to get the full health benefits of this lifestyle, you need to get out and exercise. Find forms of exercise that you enjoy and the feel good. Your body will thank you! And you don’t have to go to an expensive gym. Here are some great tips for getting in shape working out at home.
How You Eat Matters
It’s not just about what you eat, but also about HOW you eat. Shoving down your meal in between errands and things to do or while absently watching the television or working on the computer is not going to benefit your health. Stress inhibits your body’s ability to effectively digest your meals, contributing to weight gain and nutrient deficiency. Take time to ENJOY your meal. Turn off the television, phone and computer. Sit down and be PRESENT with your meal. How many times have you eaten a meal and barely noticed what you ate? You take time to make a delicious meal, don’t waste it by rushing through and not even tasting it. Sit down at the table with friends and family. Take time to savor and enjoy the lovely meal you have in front of you. Slow down. Chew slowly. Allow yourself to taste and enjoy each succulent bite of your meal. You will enjoy your food so much more, feel much more satisfied after eating and will be much less likely to overeat because you are present enough to know when you are full.
For those concerned with Diabetes, the Mediterranean diet is also a great way to help lower your blood sugar. The beauty of the Mediterranean Diet, aside from all the great health benefits, is that it has a wonderful variety of delicious foods to keep you interested and enjoying your diet so you do not feel dissatisfied or deprived. It is a great way to improve your diet and your health and feel really good about it.