The Mediterranean isn’t just filled with beautiful vistas, but with good food, too. And it’s the diet of this region that’s become the subject of much research and interest over the past few decades.
The conclusion? That eating a Mediterranean-style diet is good for your heart, overall health, and waistline.
Numerous studies have linked a Mediterranean diet to lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. There’s even some evidence that it can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer.
What Makes It Unique?
The Mediterranean diet is based on fresh produce and healthy fats, like those found in olive oil and some fish. Red meat and sweets aren’t completely off limits, but they’re eaten less frequently.
“The Mediterranean diet pyramid is based on the regional fare in the 1960s when rates of chronic disease in that area were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest,” explains Marci Clow, MS, RD, at Rainbow Light. Daily physical activity is the foundation of the pyramid.
What Should You Eat?
- Fresh fruits and vegetables: These are nutrition-packed foods filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
- Olive oil: Replace butter with this healthy fat and use it freely on salads and in cooking.
- Whole grains: Eat whole-wheat bread plain or dipped in olive oil.
- Nuts and seeds: These are other healthy fats you can eat in moderation each day. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and cashews are best.
- Legumes and beans: They are high in protein but low in fat and calories.
- Herbs and spices: Use fresh and dried herbs in place of salt and high-calorie condiments to enhance the flavors of your dishes.
- Low-fat dairy: Yogurts and part-skim milk cheeses are good options and are also good sources of calcium.
Once or twice a week, you can indulge in foods that may be higher in saturated fats, but still have nutritional benefits. These include:
- Poultry: Chicken contains less cholesterol than meat. Make sure you remove the skin and excess fat.
- Fish and seafood: Eat fish grilled, baked, or broiled, with herbs and olive oil. Avoid breading or frying it.
- Eggs: Boil or poach your eggs rather than frying.
- Cheese: This is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and vitamin A.
- Yogurt: Choose plain Greek yogurt and sprinkle some fruit and nuts (and occasionally honey) on top.
Some foods you should only eat a few times each month. They don’t add much nutrition to your diet, but they sure are tasty!
- Red Meat: Try not to eat too much bacon, sausages, and other high-fat meats.
- Sweets: Treat yourself every now and then, but we all know candy isn’t exactly healthy! If you have a sweet tooth, try substituting sweet fruits like apricots and watermelon. These types of healthy sweets are allowed three times per week.
Why Does It Work?
According to Clow, the Mediterranean diet works for people not only because it’s a source of healthier foods, but also because it is flexible.
“Some of the greatest perks of a traditional Mediterranean-style diet are its ease of compliance, delicious flavors, and that it is inexpensive and easy to stick with for the long-term,” she says.
But food isn’t the only important aspect of this lifestyle.
“The fact is, Mediterranean people historically didn’t experience better cardiovascular health just by eating differently; physical activity from walking to tending their gardens and their animals, also played a role,” Clow explains.
“They also don’t typically sit in front of the television or eat in a rush; they tended to relax and enjoy meals with others. The point here is that physical activity and mindful eating may be just as crucial to your long-term health as what is on your plate.”