One of my colleagues is on a cruise of the Mediterranean right now. After the week I’ve had at work, I have to say I’m a little envious. Speaking of the Mediterranean, there’s been a flurry of information lately about what’s called the "Mediterranean diet." Have you heard of this? No, it’s not the latest fad diet to come along. In fact, this "diet," which is really a way of eating, has been around for hundreds of years.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
How many of you like fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, and wine? If you said “I do,” this diet just may be for you. The mainstay of this way of eating has its roots in Greece and southern Italy and focuses not only on foods prevalent in these regions, but the pleasure and sense of well-being that these cultures have taken in eating over many centuries.
Why is the Mediterranean diet so good for me?
Studies dating back to 50 years ago or so show that people who eat like the people who live in the Mediterranean region have a lower risk of death from heart disease and cancer. Eating this way can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure; reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and lung disease; and even lower your chances of depression, and Parkinson and Alzheimer disease. And a recent study out of Israel showed that those subjects who followed a Mediterranean diet had better lipid and blood glucose control compared to those who followed a low-fat diet. What more could you ask of an eating plan?
What foods are included in the diet?
The good news for all you carb lovers: Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are staples of this eating plan. This means that bread, pasta, rice, and couscous can be part of your daily food choices, along with fresh produce like grapes, avocadoes, broccoli, and tomatoes. Fresh fruit, rather than a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, is dessert.
As far as protein choices go, fish and poultry are emphasized, while red meat is recommended only a few times per month, with the maximum amount being 12 to 16 ounces per month. Up to four eggs per week are “allowed”. And some cheese and yogurt is okay to eat each day, preferably lower-fat versions.
Olive oil is the primary fat in the Mediterranean diet, and very little, if any, butter or margarine is consumed to keep your saturated fat intake down. Nuts and seeds are encouraged although they are high in calories, so moderation is important.
Wash it all down with a glass of red wine—one to two glasses per day for men, one glass per day for women—unless you have particular reasons or health concerns for not drinking alcohol.
What about physical activity?
You thought you could sit back, eat nuts and seeds, drink wine, and rest on your laurels? Not a chance. Physical activity, particularly walking, is an important part of the Mediterranean lifestyle, so think about ways to make this a regular part of your daily schedule.
What about calories?
Eating the Mediterranean way means eating slowly while savoring and taking pleasure in your food. By doing so, you eventually learn that you don’t need to eat as much as you once did, and that you become fuller sooner. You still need to watch portions of food, though, especially portions of olive oil, nuts, and seeds. If you’re interested in trying this eating style but need a little more structure, ask your dietitian to provide you with more guidance in terms of calories, portions, and/or carb grams.
How can I get started?
Easy ways to get started include: Eating more fish and less red meat, using olive or canola oil in cooking, and eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than refined carbs like white bread, pasta, and sugary treats. For more information, check out these resources: