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What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is a leading diet nutrition experts stand behind. Find out what makes this eating pattern so special and how to follow the Mediterranean diet with simple tips.

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Diets and their claims often sound intriguing, though they tend to lack merit. But the Mediterranean diet is unlike any fad diet, and an eating pattern health professionals can stand behind.

In fact, the Mediterranean diet continues to be one of the leading diets. The diet sores above others related to its sustainability, simplicity, and scientifically-proven benefits.

Basics of a Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet encourages whole, plant-based cooking. A basic breakdown of key components include:

• High consumption of cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil.

• Moderate consumption of fish, eggs, and dairy products. Also moderate intake of alcohol, in particular wine at meals.

• Lower consumption of meat and animal fats.

• Use of fresh herbs and spices to offer extra nutrients and flavor without the need of salt.

• Eating meals with family and friends.

• Leading an active lifestyle but allowing oneself to relax after a meal.

The simple, yet nutritious makeup can lead to many health benefits.

Mediterranean Diet Benefits

First documented in Ancel Keys' famed "Seven Countries Study," hundreds of studies have since proven the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. These include heart health, weight loss and maintenance, and longevity, amongst the many.

Heart Health

In the late 50s, Dr. Ancel Keys linked dietary patterns in the Mediterranean to low rates of coronary heart disease. Since, more and more studies have strengthened the relationship between a Mediterranean diet eating plan and heart health.

A meta-analysis published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition investigated 11 qualified studies. Researchers found individuals who adhered most to the diet had a lower risk and mortality from cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, the most protective effects are associated with higher consumption of olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that affects how the body uses sugar, which is often related to insulin resistance. Risk factors of type 2 diabetes include family history, race, and age. Unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet choices increase the risk of type 2 diabetes as well.

The Mediterranean diet may help prevent type 2 diabetes. A lower carbohydrate, Mediterranean-style diet can also improve glycemic control in those with established diabetes.

Cancer

Cancer is caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. The disease can be life-threatening, especially without proper treatment, as there is no known cure to date.

One can protect against cancer by making dietary changes, which may limit meat suggested in the Mediterranean diet. The World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggests red meat is probably carcinogenic. This is mostly specific to colorectal cancer with some evidence for pancreatic and prostate cancers. Processed meats are deemed carcinogenic to humans.

What's more, a meta-analysis showed high adherence to a Mediterranean diet was inversely linked to a lower cancer mortality risk. The benefit was mostly driven by higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The study was likewise the first of its kind to report a small decrease in breast cancer risk.

Weight Management

Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight benefits physical, mental, and emotional health. It can lower the risk of many diseases and improve quality of life.

Adopting Mediterranean lifestyle can help people manage their weight due to a number of factors. These include its focus on nutrient-dense foods rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats.

Dismissing a sedentary lifestyle and embracing physical activity is likewise helpful for weight management.

Bone Support

Bone health is usually related to calcium and vitamin D intake, as well as weight bearing exercises and other lifestyle choices. Compelling research shows sticking to a Mediterranean diet can reduce hip bone loss within just 12 months!

While the diet had no obvious impact on participants with normal bone density, it did have on those with osteoporosis. However, people in the control group continued to see the usual age-related decrease in bone density. Those following the Mediterranean diet saw an equivalent increase in bone density in the femoral neck.

Brain Health

With age, brain health can be compromised which in turn changes mental function. Cognitive processes such as learning and memory may not be as sharp as they once were. The risks of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia increase, too.

Lifestyle plays a large part in brain health and the MIND Diet may significantly protect against Alzheimer's disease. The MIND stands for "Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay" and is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. The MIND Diet encourages the basic principles of each. However, it also has specific recommendations with the inclusion of foods and nutrients that research supports for good brain health.

Research found seniors who followed the MIND diet reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by 53 percent. Those who did not follow the diet rigorously still reduced the risk of the disease by as much as 35 percent!

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions shown to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. The National Cholesterol Education Adult Treatment Panel (ATP) III provides diagnostic criteria for metabolic syndrome. A diagnosis is made if three or more of the five components are present:

• Fasting glucose: > 100 mg/dL
• High triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia): >150 mg/dL
• High-density lipoprotein (HDL): < 50 mg/dL for females and < 40 mg/dL for males
• Blood pressure: > 130/85 mmHg
• Waist circumference: > 35 for females and 40 for males

Researchers of the PREDIMED Study aimed to determine the efficacy of the Mediterranean Diet for preventing cardiovascular disease. They found a traditional Mediterranean diet enriched with nuts could be a useful tool to manage metabolic syndrome.

Almost five years later, researchers followed up with the PREDIMED study participants. They found the risk of developing metabolic syndrome did not differ between participants assigned to any of the diets. However, about 28 percent of those who had metabolic syndrome at baseline reversed it!

Furthermore, the group receiving olive oil showed significant decreases in both central obesity and high fasting glucose. Participants supplemented with nuts showed a significant decrease in central obesity, too.

All-in-all, a Mediterranean diet may reduce the risks of central obesity and high blood glucose and reverse metabolic syndrome.

Longevity

The overall Mediterranean Diet has been shown to promote longevity and health. However, it does not promise to be a shortcut to good health nor claim to offer success through one particular food.

Instead, the diet advocates a largely plant-based diet that capitalizes on the health benefits of a variety of foods. Best yet, the foods tend to be readily available in our own backyards!

How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet

Interested in following such a beneficial, healthy diet? One can gradually incorporate the philosophy of the Mediterranean diet into their diet with these 3 tips!

1. Focus on Whole Foods

The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole foods over processed foods often supplying empty calories. When going to the grocery store, aim for a variety of these food sources:

• Whole grains: Avoid refined and processed grains and aim for unrefined, whole grains. These include whole wheat pasta and bread, barley, oat, quinoa, and couscous.

• Legumes: Offering plant-based protein, legumes are a great alternative to animal meat. Add more beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas into the diet.

• Veggies: Choose colorful, non-starchy vegetables over starchy veggies. Broccoli, eggplant, bell peppers, cabbage, onions, and all leafy greens are packed with nutrients while being low in carb and calories.

• Fruits: Pomegranates, grapes, tomatoes, mandarins, figs, avocados, olives, and berries are just a few excellent examples. Also choose whole fruits over juices for added fiber and to keep calories and sugars in check.

• Heart-healthy fats: Swap out butter with olive or canola oil, as they are loaded with healthy, monounsaturated fat. Fish. Salmon, tuna, halibut, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish, such as shrimp, are further suppliers of healthy fats.

• Poultry: Poultry is recommended in moderate amounts. Choose white meats (such as chicken and turkey) and skip out on fried products, unless seared in olive or canola oils.

• Nuts and seeds: Almonds, flaxseeds, pecans are just a few examples to include in meals and snacks.

• Red wine: If desiring red wine, it is recommended to do so in moderation. Wine servings include two glasses for men and one for women. It is likewise important to remember a serving size is about 5 ounces, not the entire bottle.

2. Make Meals a Social Experience

The Mediterranean diet is more than just a healthy eating pattern. The diet also encourages making meals into a social experience.

Make mealtime more social by:

• Getting the whole family involved in meal prep.
• Sharing and enjoying conversation around the table.
• Inviting friends over for dinner on occasion.

3. Start with Small Changes

One of the easiest ways to adopt a Mediterranean diet meal plan is by making small changes. This especially serves true if accustomed to a Westernized diet.

Simple tips for adopting a Mediterranean diet include:

• Take apart of #MeatlessMonday and prepare a plant-based dish.
• Swap out butter for olive oil.
• Snack on carrot sticks and hummus rather than a bag of chips.
• Kick that sweet tooth with a piece of fruit.
• Choose whole grain noodles over refined pastas.
• Aim to eat fish twice a week.
• Switch from high-fat dairy to skim milk and nonfat Greek yogurt.
• Eat dinner with the family at least three times weekly.

All-in-all, adopt a wholesome diet while enjoying it with loved ones. Aim to lead an active lifestyle, too.

References:

Esposito K, Giugliano D. Mediterranean diet and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews. 2014;30(S1):34-40. doi:10.1002/dmrr.2516.

LaMotte S. Best and worst diets for 2020, ranked by experts, with a popular one near last. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/02/health/best-diet-worst-diet-2020-wellness/index.html. Published January 2, 2020.

López I. Culture and Mediterranean Diet. International Journal of Nutrition. 2019;3(2):13-21. doi:10.14302/issn.2379-7835.ijn-18-2272

Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on November 14, 2015. Updated on February 27, 2020.

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