Though I can barely spell it, I’ve had my eye on the Mediterranean Diet for some time now. This week I finally set out to give it a try—only to discover I was pretty much on this “diet” already.
The Mediterranean Diet is often described as a “non-diet.” It’s essentially the cuisine and eating habits practiced by residents of many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The combination of factors is believed to grant robust health and a slimmer figure.
The Typical Mediterranean Cuisine Includes:
- Seasoning with herbs and spices instead of salt
- More fish, less red meat
- Swapping butter and heavy sauces for small amounts of olive oil
- Lots (I mean lots) of fruits and vegetables
- Less saturated and trans fats (including hydrogenated oils)
- Choosing the low-fat version of dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt)
- Whole grain bread, pasta and rice
- Moderate red wine consumption
- A handful of unseasoned nuts a day
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
- Promotes heart health
- Can be effective for weight loss
- Healthy—variety and balance are key
- Humane—includes plenty of delicious foods that most of us already eat
Research has proven that effective weight loss nutrition is not simply removing fat from your diet. Rather it’s eating healthful foods, which in fact include moderate amounts of healthy fat, such as monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (fish, canola oil, nuts).
ABC News followed a diet study that compared the success of three diet regimens—low-carb, low-fat and Mediterranean. The surprising findings: the Mediterranean diet “beat out the low-fat diet both in terms of how much weight patients lost, as well as how many health benefits they gained as a result of the diet.”
Why Olive Oil is Good for You
Olive oil is a Mediterranean Diet mainstay. They drizzle it on whole grain pasta and salad and cook with it instead of using sauces, dressings, butter and margarine. “More than half the fat calories in a Mediterranean diet come from monounsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil),” says the American Heart Association. “Monounsaturated fat doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels the way saturated fat does.”
In addition to reducing one’s risk of heart disease, olive oil is an antioxidant. Virgin and extra virgin are the best kind to buy.
Do You Have to Drink Wine?
Some of my friends have reservations about trying the Mediterranean Diet because of its wine component. But wine is just one of many beneficial elements of the cuisine, so if you don’t like it, skip it—you’ll still get several health rewards. In fact, the suspected benefits of red wine (antioxidant, longevity, metabolism-booster) are linked to its concentration of resveratrol, not alcohol, so you can probably get the same effects with a resveratrol supplement.
The Mediterranean Lifestyle
The dieting masses may have abandoned the French diet (remember French Women Don’t Get Fat?) for the Mediterranean craze, but the truth is they aren’t that different. The secret to both French and Mediterranean cuisines is not bread, cheese, butter or wine. It’s eating for pleasure.
Having an appreciation of healthy food—fresh ingredients, ritual preparation, armfuls of in-season produce—leads to smarter food choices. It also means you’re more likely to savor smaller portions of the sweet and fattening stuff. (I believe they call that “moderation.”)
The Mediterranean lifestyle is also characterized by less stress and more physical activity than the American lifestyle. Both good habits will do wonders for your health.
Summary of the Mediterranean Diet
The only downside I found: people in Mediterranean countries often have nothing more than a cup of coffee for breakfast, and they eat bigger lunches and late dinners. While I’m a fan of the big lunch, I need my morning meal (for energy and metabolism) and I prefer an earlier or smaller dinner so I’m ready for tomorrow’s breakfast. Thankfully, the diet is easy to merge with your own preferences, so you can still do 5-6 smaller meals a day, stay within your caloric need and keep an eye on the calories you consume from fat.
It’s great to see today’s popular “diets” focusing as much on the way we eat as what we eat. The Mediterranean Diet can teach us about mindful eating and enjoying flavor and freshness (and yes, even fat). Adding to its benefits, this nutrition plan is sustainable and tasty, which is why it has been found to have high staying power among dieters.
Start today: Pick up fruits, veggies, cheeses, whole grain bread and freshly pressed olive oil at your local farmers’ market and throw together healthy summer recipes like these: Mediterranean Orzo Salad and Spring Greek Salad.
Let your love affair with healthy food begin!