Trendy diets come and go, but the Mediterranean diet has aged as well as red wine. Or Parmesan cheese. Or balsamic vinegar. Coincidentally, the Mediterranean diet encourages eating all three of these delish foods and drinks.
So, What Is the Mediterranean Diet, Exactly?
An important note to remember is that the Mediterranean diet is not what you traditionally think of as a “diet.” The word diet actually comes from the Greek word diaita, which means “lifestyle.” The Mediterranean diet, then, is not just a way to eat healthier and cut calories, but it includes the entire culture surrounding food: the harvesting, prepping, cooking, and consuming.
The Mediterranean diet mimics the style of eating in countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea: Greece (especially the island of Crete), Italy, Spain, and parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East. This diet wasn’t exactly “invented” but observed; researchers took interest in the cuisine and eating habits in the 1960s when they noticed life expectancy of people in this region was among the highest in the world.
What Do You Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet has no gimmicks. It relies on simple foods, fresh flavors, and pleasure. Since it mirrors culture-based eating patterns, it doesn’t have rigid rules, but researchers have identified the following components.
Make plants the main portion of your meal, “including fruits and vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, beans, nuts, and seeds,” says Rebecca Kerkenbush, MS, RD-AP, CSG, CD-member of the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Kerkenbush recommends seven to 10 servings of fruits and veggies daily.
Choose a variety of whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, farro, bulgur, and whole wheat. Here are other whole grains to try.
Embrace healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, olives. Use olive oil to cook instead of butter or lard.
Enjoy fish, seafood, chicken, and eggs a couple times a week.
Enhance food with fresh herbs and spices, as opposed to salt.
Eat natural yogurt and cheese in moderation. For yogurt, that means choosing plain, low-fat yogurt; for cheese, that means minimally processed forms like feta, goat cheese, Parmesan, and Manchega. (Sorry, Go-Gurt and Velveeta don’t make the cut.)
Make water your drink of choice, and enjoy wine in moderation. “Studies show red wine has heart-protective properties since it is high in polyphenols, which are compounds that can help combat diseases and boost overall health,” says Catherine Sebastian, MS, RD. Moderation means no more than one glass for women and two glasses for men a day; one glass equals five ounces. Learn more about the health benefits of wine in moderation here.
Enjoy fruits for your end-of-meal treat. “Fruit is the typical dessert, not baked goods or ice cream,” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
Don’t forget how you eat is an important part of following the Mediterranean diet. While you eat, ask yourself the following questions, according to Kerkenbush: “Is the mood leisurely? Who are you eating with? What are you talking about? Are you savoring each bite, [and] enjoying the different flavors and textures?”
What Can’t You Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
Technically, following the Mediterranean diet means not *banning* certain foods, but just eating them sparingly. Here are the foods you’ll want to limit in order to eat like a Greek.
Limit red meat and other fatty meats. Stick to three-ounce portions and only have them a a few times a month or less.
Limit sugar, sodium, trans fats, saturated fat, artificial flavors and dyes, and refined flours. (That means keep white pasta, pastries, and Wonder Bread to a minimum.)
Limit high-fat dairy. Choose low-fat or skim, or go non-dairy with soy milk.
Limit heavily processed and fried foods.
Limit protein portions. Foods like salmon, chicken, and beef should take up no more than a quarter of your plate. Don’t make it the main component of the meal.
And remember, following the Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle. It’s not just what you eat, but how. One no-no: eating on the run. “The traditional Mediterranean-style diet is eating leisurely. The meal is the event,” says Weisenberger.
What Are the Pros of the Mediterranean Diet?
Gee, where to start?
American Heart Association notes that the Mediterranean diet is similar to their own DASH diet to lower blood pressure; the American Diabetes Association calls the diet “a health rock star” that can aid in both preventing and managing type 2 diabetes; and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says the Mediterranean diet can help protect against some cancers and add years to your life.
In a 2013 study that had followed more than 10,000 women for 15 years, those who ate a Mediterranean-style diet had a 46 percent greater chance of healthy aging than average. (Healthy aging, in this case, meant surviving until 70 years or older without chronic diseases, and without major impairment to cognitive, physical, or mental health.)
Another study of the Mediterranean diet found that this eating pattern was linked to a significantly decreased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, excess abdominal weight, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and high blood glucose levels.
As for your everyday health, all the fiber in the Mediterranean diet can also improve your digestion and help you stay full between meals. The healthy fats may also boost your skin, hair, and nail health.
So What Are the Cons of the Mediterranean Diet?
Well… not much.
One possible concern is that the emphasis on healthy fats might cause you to exceed your calorie budget. However, if you’re following the Mediterranean diet, you should also be cutting out saturated fats, fried food, and sweets, so that should balance out your calorie intake.
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