what is the Mediterranean diet?

You may have heard about the Mediterranean diet – it’s a diet rich in fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fat (the good fat). It’s been around for years and rated #1 as the best diet to follow to reduce risk of heart-related diseases, diabetes, and even weight loss.

where did the Mediterranean diet come from?

The Mediterranean diet comes from the Mediterranean region, which is bordered on the North by Europe, the East by Asia, and the South by Africa. Although the West is connected to the Atlantic ocean, many consider it a separate body of water as it’s almost completely enclosed by land. Surprisingly, the land that encloses the sea is roughly 20 different countries.

It is commonly believed the Mediterranean diet is associated with dietary patterns from Spain, Italy, and Greece, but that is partially untrue as the Mediterranean diet includes any cuisine and country that borders the Mediterranean Sea.

THE STUDY

The founder of the Mediterranean diet, Ancel Keys performed an extensive study on 7 countries to learn more about heart and vascular diseases among countries with traditional eating patterns and lifestyles. Furthermore, three of those countries that were studied are situated along the Mediterranean (Spain, Italy, and Greece) sea and all were found to have reduced risks of heart-related diseases within their population when compared to other countries. 

Interestingly, the dietary patterns from all the countries along the Mediterranean sea are actually quite similar and contribute to the development of the Mediterranean diet. 

similar eating patterns in countries along the Mediterranean sea include:

 High consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, beans, nuts and seeds.

– High consumption of olive oil

– Moderate consumption of dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese).

– Moderate consumption of seafood and poultry

– Low consumption of red meat- Low to moderate consumption of wine. 

so, what's in the diet?

The Mediterranean diet is composed of fruits and vegetables, grains, olive oils, beans, nuts and seeds, and legumes. It’s surprising to hear, but the Mediterranean diet is actually a high-fat diet. Don’t worry, the fat comes from mostly monounsaturated fat (good fat), which is found in nuts, seeds, and olive oil.

Furthermore, research has shown monounsaturated fat to be extremely beneficial in lowering cholesterol levels, including total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Many additional studies has shown the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of diabetes, cancer, obesity, depression, and overall risk of death when compared to other diets. But, it’s not just a diet, some would say it’s a lifestyle as well.

lifestyle is more important than we think

Diet can make an impact on our overall health, but there are other factors that are just as important to your health. The founder and researcher of the Mediterranean diet, Ancel Keys, demonstrated in his research that in combination with the Mediterranean diet, lifestyle factors such as increased physical activity, cessation of smoking, and low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol (mostly wine consumed at meals) showed a significant decrease in heart-related diseases compared to those who had one or none of the lifestyle factors. Basically, what he is saying, we must engage in a healthy diet and multiple lifestyle factors to really reap the benefits.

In a perfect world, eating Mediterranean-approved foods and being able to exercise every day is easy to say and write, but in reality, it may not be plausible for everyone. For many of us, the best we can do find a balance. My advice is to incorporate as many foods from the Mediterranean diet as you can. Start slow, and gradually increase. Small changes can lead to long lasting and rewarding results.

tips to follow the mediterranean diet

what can I do?

Below are examples of how you can incorporate the Mediterranean diet in your lifestyle. Choose 1 or more from each tip.

tip #1: include fruits and veggies in your diet daily

– Add a side of fruit at breakfast or take slices of bell peppers for a mid morning snack

– Add a small handful of spinach, kale, cauliflower, or celery in your next smoothie

– Stuff your sandwich with a bunch of veggies like cucumbers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes

tip #2: Switch out your oil to olive oil

– Use high quality olive oil or extra-virgin

– Dip oil in whole wheat bread- Drizzle over pasta

– Add to seafood or poultry dishes
**There’s been some news about fake extra-virgin olive oil being sold on the market. Be careful!

tip #3: Eat whole grains or foods made with whole wheat flour

– Choose Mediterranean whole grains such as farro, barley, bulgar, or cook with brown rice or pasta

– Add whole grains to your own Mediterranean bowls (like taco bowls)

tip #4: less red meat, more fish

– If you do eat red meat, choose smaller portions

– Eat more fish (the go-to fish include salmon, sardines, mackerel), 1-2 times a week

– Add your choice of protein to tacos, salads, stir-fry, soups

tip #5: choose healthy snacks

– Opt for nuts, seeds, or dried fruit

– Add nuts or seeds to greek yogurt with homemade granola

– Eat sliced carrots or bell peppers with hummus

tip #6: enjoy fruit for dessert

– Cut up seasonal fruit, sprinkle some honey or sugar, if needed

– If fruit doesn’t satisfy you, try eating a small amount of chocolate chips with the fruit

Want to learn more?

Here are a few of my favorite resources to learn more about the Mediterranean diet:

The Mediterranean Diet: A History of Health (study from NIH)

Oldways

Healthline

What’s your favorite Mediterranean recipe? Please share in the comments below!

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