If you love history—especially ancient history, as I do—digging deep into the eating traditions of the Roman, Germanic and Persian worlds, to get to the beginnings and heart of what’s known colloquially as the Mediterranean Diet, was a fascinating read and took up an entire Sunday morning to fully understand the origins of what I will declare right at the outset; the Mediterranean Diet plan is the best “diet” for me. And maybe for you. We’ll see.
The Mediterranean Diet Claims
So what is the Mediterranean Diet? Let’s start with just a bit of history: The entire history of the ancient world evolved within the geographical borders of the Mediterranean basin and included what we know as all of Europe, Northern Africa, the cradle of civilization (modern day Iraq), Egypt, Greece; the entire region where the civilization we know today was born. Separate empires and cultures—Persian, Roman, Germanic, Grecian—shared and warred for centuries, and it’s the sharing, co-opting, of what and how each ate that shaped the cuisine of the entire area. Bread, wine, and olives from Roman and Greek; spices and grains from the Arab world. Germanic tribes were hunters and gatherers; meats and wild greens.
What evolved was a way of eating, born in the cradle of our society, that went from field to table, sea to table, and included not just the harvested or grown foods but the manner in which they were prepared and shared. The Mediterranean is far more than a diet; it’s our combined history. But it wasn’t until a researcher found that the residents of small poor southern Italian towns were healthier than their wealthy American emigrant family members. This was the 1950s. It was like: “Oh wait, if we eat like the ancients ate, we’d be healthier.”
So what did they eat?
The Mediterranean Diet food list is less a list than a way of living and how food is incorporated. If you look at it like a pyramid, with the bottom being the widest, the very first thing is physical activity, because without moving the body actively and regularly—albeit even moderately—the rest doesn’t matter. Not only will you not lose weight, but you’re more likely to suffer from heart-related diseases. So exercise every day.
Then the food. Whole grains make up the bulk of the daily diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. A portion of the day’s foods would include beans, or other legumes (lentils, peas, peanuts are included here) which are among the healthiest foods you can eat; a combination of carb, protein and fat. Next include, albeit in lesser amounts than grains and fruits, olive oil. Also, enjoy a little yogurt and/or cheese daily. Three or four times a week add fish, seafood and/or poultry. As well as eggs. Lastly red meat; just a few times a month. And finally, and probably as important as the exercise, at least six glasses of water per day.
That’s it. That’s the Mediterranean Diet. Some will balk at the carbs from the grains, but they’re there for a reason; carbs are fuel and since you’re supposed to be quite active every day, the complex carbohydrates in whole grains—I repeat, whole grains, not white processed stuff—are the best fuel you could ask for. The grains balance the proteins, dairy and healthy fats. It just makes sense.
But listen: you cannot have a heaping mound of pasta—even whole grain pasta—and then sit all day. We’re all in agreement, right?
The success of the Mediterranean diet is its composition: a varied diet characterized by a high consumption of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, fish, eggs, along with a moderate intake of meat, oil and wine. A diet rich in tradition and in association with active lifestyle is the model that everyone should follow.
The Mediterranean Diet Ingredients
And by this the whole grains are meant to be unprocessed or minimally processed since the process of, well, prepossessing, removes fiber and nutrients. The key here is to read labels. Whether it’s cereal, pastas, rices, or breads, the grains must be listed as “whole” and there should be little if any added sodium, sugars (which are often disguised so look out for dextrose and high fructose corn syrup; bad, very bad), artificial flavorings, or fat solids (saturated fat). Steer clear. No refined, processed flours. Think oats, barley, buckwheat, faro, polenta, brown rice, couscous, bulgur wheat—you get the idea. As it relates to portion size, the majority of your daily calories would come from this group. Don’t go overboard, of course. As serving of pasta, for example, is generally one cup.
Fresh (when possible, or frozen with no added anything) veggies are integral and along with fruits, make up the second level of the pyramid of Mediterranean Diet foods. Enjoy them fresh and raw or if cooked, use olive oil to prepare. Veggies include, but aren’t limited to, from A to Z; artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and beets, cabbage, cucumbers and collards, eggplant, kale, lettuces, mushrooms, onions, peppers, pumpkin, radishes, spinach, turnips and zucchini. A cup serving (or more) per meal, three meals a day.
Fresh when possible, or frozen with no added anything—especially sugars, (so forget fruit juices unless you blend fresh whole fruits yourself)—whole fruits are as important as the vegetables and servings should be similar. Fruits include but are obviously not limited to all varieties of apples, avocados (yes, avocados are fruits with amazing-for-you fat), clementines ( and all citrus), figs, grapes, melons of nearly all varieties, olives (of course), pears, pomegranates, strawberries, and the fruit we think of as a veggie, the lovely tomato.
This ingredient is central to the Mediterranean Diet and extra virgin olive oil is best as it’s packed with phytonutrients which help reduce risk of disease. Use olive oil every day to cook, bake and dress salads and prepare, dress and season vegetables.
Legumes, Nuts, Beans and Seeds.
Enjoy these everyday albeit in smaller portions than your grains, fruits and veggies. These are the super healthy fats packed with protein and fiber. Good choices include almonds (and most other nuts), beans (there’s hardly a bean that you can’t eat), peas (all kinds), and seeds like pine nuts and sesame. Oh, and it goes without saying, but I’ll say it: no sweetened nuts.
Dairy, like Cheese and Yogurt.
Enjoy daily but in much smaller amounts than any of the other previous foods. Perhaps a serving at one of your larger daily meals. It’s the calcium in these foods that’s important; watch the fat content and keep your servings small, but definitely do eat daily. Yogurts without added sugar and low-fat (not nonfat, because that just means they pile in the sugar). Greek yogurt is obviously the best choice. The probiotics will have your tummy thanking you. Cheeses include what you’d expect in the Mediterranean, like parmigiano (Parmesan), pecorino, ricotta, feta. Whatever cheese you choose, make sure it’s actual cheese and not a cheese “product,” like so-called American cheese for example. Eat daily but in smaller amounts.
Herbs and Spices
Grow a small herb garden and pack it with rosemary and sage, parsley, basil, mint and oregano. And make sure to use plenty of garlic, fennel, chiles, and peppers. Use spices and herbs liberally.
Fish and Shellfish
Eat at least three to four times per week. The omega-3 fatty acids are essentials. Fresh is best but if frozen, make sure it was frozen when fresh or just caught. Avoid farmed-fishes if possible. No deep frying; rather sauté, bake, broil, grill (using olive oil) or eat raw, in the case of oysters, but make sure they are super fresh. Pick or name a seafood or shellfish and you can eat it.
Poultry, the less skin the better, is best for obvious reasons. Eat a few times per week (switch up with your seafood; three nights seafood, four nights poultry, for example). Red meat must be very lean and if ground must be 90 percent lean. Eat red meats just a few times per month.
A word about wine. Red wine is also an important part of this diet and had been for centuries and centuries. This is a choice you’ll need to make based on a number of factors including lifestyle, but should you choose to include red wine, 5 and 10 ounces a day for women and men, respectively.
The Science (or Lack Thereof) Behind the Mediterranean Diet
Research on the Mediterranean Diet is voluminous. But putting that aside for a moment, consider this: Much of civilization grew over millennia eating these foods. That’s enough for me, but there is science. If you would like to live longer, this is your diet. A review published in the 2014 Nutrients journal asserts,
The Mediterranean dietary pattern, through a healthy profile of fat intake, low proportion of carbohydrate, low glycemic index, high content of dietary fiber, antioxidant compounds, and anti-inflammatory effects, reduces the risk of certain pathologies, such as cancer or Cardiovascular Disease (CVD).
The Mayo Clinic goes a step further. Several steps, actually. Not only does the Mediterranean Diet lower your risk of heart disease, it lowers the bad cholesterol that clogs your arteries.
In fact, a meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality.
The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer. For these reasons, most if not all major scientific organizations encourage healthy adults to adapt a style of eating like that of the Mediterranean diet for prevention of major chronic diseases.”
So the Mediterranean Diet is really healthy and may help you live a longer, healthier life. But will it help you lose weight? For many, that’s an important question to have answered. And the short answer is yes, if you make it your new way to eat for life.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, of WebMD says, “There’s no question about it. Years of research have shown that the Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest around. For weight loss, stick with it more than 6 months (preferably forever), get regular exercise, and watch your portions.”
Word on the Street about the Mediterranean Diet
Nutritionally speaking, there’s no better diet. Is it easy? It takes getting used to. Is it pricey? Sure. Good food isn’t cheap. Bad food is. US News & World Report’s annual diet review almost always has the Mediterranean Diet at or near the top for best overall diet, this year (2017) second only to the DASH diet (I have reviewed the DASH diet and it’s not only similar, it’s perhaps the best diet for overall health and may be easier to follow for life).
On SparkPeople.com, an online diet forum with regular people posting candid reviews, the moderator and public relations person was looking for a review specific to the Mediterranean Diet. She got this from “TermiteMom”:
I went to Amazon and found a recent (2016) Mediterranean Diet book called The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day. With 209 reviews, it received 4.6 stars, which is a pretty high rating. To be clear, the reviews were about how effective the book was in helping to implement the Mediterranean Diet. More than 160 people gave it five stars.
“M. Warren” posted a review in the spring of 2017 which says,
… this is now our go-to cookbook. It’s helped us shift our eating habits away from meat, potatoes and pasta – although all three are included here – to healthier options. I’ve lost 11 pounds in a month of eating dinners from this cookbook and following their Mediterranean food pyramid.
The Bottom Line: Is the Mediterranean Diet Worth a Try?
Yes. This “diet” is a way of life and if you embrace it, you’ll likely live longer, feel better, and drop weight.