The Mediterranean Diet Is Once Again On Top—Here’s How Dietitians Hope It Evolves
- March 16, 2021
Today, U.S. News and World Reports released its official ranking for the best diets and the top honors were given to the Mediterranean diet for the fourth year in a row. The eating plan—which advocates for lean proteins, whole grains, seafood, and plenty of vegetables, along with the occasional glass of wine—was deemed the best by a panel of 25 experts who specialize in nutrition, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Here’s what the experts look for when determining the official ranking: how nutritionally sound and safe the eating plan is, effectiveness for weight management, ability to prevent and manage conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and if it’s easy to follow. With these parameters in place, it’s not hard to see why the Med diet would beat out ones that are more restrictive, like the ketogenic diet or alkaline diet: There’s not only a wealth of studies backing up the Mediterranean diet’s benefits but it leaves more on the table than it restricts.
Watch the video below to learn more about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet:
Still, the eating plan isn’t without its faults. As Well+Good reported last year, scientific studies on the Mediterranean diet lack diversity and the plan disregards eating patterns of different cultural traditions. We reached out to registered dietitians to see how they felt about the Mediterranean diet once again taking U.S. News and World Reports’ top spot and how they hope the eating plan continues to evolve in the future.
1. It should incorporate lifestyle habits, not just food.
“Right now most recommendations in regards to the Mediterranean diet tend to focus solely on nutrition, and leave out other important aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle which include culture, community, and movement—all of which play a significant role in impacting the possible long-term health benefits of this particular diet,” registered dietitian Megan Faletra, RD, says.
Community and movement are important pillars in Blue Zones, two of which, are in the Mediterranean region. “We need to stop looking at the Mediterranean diet as a diet and start discussing it as a lifestyle—one which if we looked closely has many similarities with other traditional cultures around the world,” Faletra says.
2. Followers should broaden what they consider Mediterranean food
Registered dietitian Maya Feller, RD, says part of why she feels the Mediterranean diet continues to come out on top is because it’s based on whole, minimally processed foods—a win in her book. But even though the eating plan doesn’t seem very restrictive, there are ways she believes it should be broadened even more, starting with the types of cuisine people think of as Mediterranean food.
“When people think of the Mediterranean, they tend to think of countries like Italy and France, but the Mediterranean Sea spans Western Europe as well as [Northern] Africa and the Middle East,” she says. She hopes the evolution of the Mediterranean diet includes people expanding past what they think of Mediterranean food to include ingredients and dishes from these regions as well.
3. Using spices in new ways
Another aspect of the Mediterranean diet Feller says she likes is that it incorporates spices (which add flavor as well as extra health benefits), but she feels this, too, is something that can be built upon. “One reason why I think people love Greek salad is because it incorporates spices and that’s not something we tend to think to include spices in,” she says. “But I can tell you that putting cumin on your lettuce and drizzling it with pumpkin seed oil is delicious.”
Feller hopes that people will think of ways to use the spices in their pantry beyond just when they’re making chicken or fish. She again encourages people to experiment with a wide variety of spices beyond what is considered Italian or Greek, broadening to include the Mediterranean region as a whole, and even beyond.
4. Ensuring that following the eating plan is more accessible to BIPOC communities
While public health dietitian Shahzadi Devje, RD, is a fan of the Mediterranean diet, she says it has some shortcomings that need to be addressed to make it more accessible. “We typically hear that the Med diet can be ‘adapted’ to meet specific cultural needs,” she says. “In essence, we’re brushing other cultures aside and giving precedence to Western eating styles as the only way to be ‘healthy.’ I am afraid this ‘plug and play’ model is narrow-minded and rather discriminatory.”
This is in large part due to the fact that some foods characteristic of the Med diet are not always familiar or accessible to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, Devje says. Many of these communities are disproportionately affected by food insecurity or are more likely to live in food deserts, making it harder for them to include these ingredients in their diets.
Thus, Devje says it’s important for the Mediterranean diet (and those recommending it) to consider accessibility and cultural habits when making dietary recommendations. “I believe it’s important to build cultural competence and advocate for dietary eating patterns relevant and meaningful to all—not just to white audiences,” Devje says, adding that it’s important to note that there is not one universally healthy eating plan for all bodies. “In order to engage the BIPOC community, healthy diets must be reviewed within the context of culture to ensure they are relevant, achievable, and sustainable. Food is highly personal for people; it’s an illustration of their culture and identity. We eat not solely to nourish our body—but also our life.”
5. Creating Mediterranean fusion dishes
Feller hopes the evolution of the Mediterranean diet will grow to include people putting their own unique stamp on it. “I’m such a lover of fusion food,” she says. “There is such a wide range of cuisine in various regions across the U.S. Think about what flavors are unique to where you live and how you can incorporate them using the principles of the Mediterranean diet.”
Feller says the key to adding your own twist while still staying true to what the Med diet actually entails is ensuring that the ways you build off it are still plant-forward, minimally processed, and incorporating healthy fats. That way, you’re still getting the nutrients that make the Med diet so beloved, but you’re using a wide variety of foods and spices to get there.
6. Reframing the diet from its “end all, be all” status
As beneficial as the Mediterranean diet is, Devje says she hopes the way we talk about the eating plan evolves in the future. “Promoting health and optimizing nutrition, throughout the lifespan, requires a globally inclusive lens; one where cultural diversity is accepted and included at all levels: in nutrition research and review, dietary guidelines, healthy eating public policy, and media,” Devje says. To this end, she hopes the future will be advocating that the Mediterranean diet is one healthy way to life, not the healthy way to live.
There’s no denying the health benefits that make the Mediterranean diet a healthy eating plan to follow for many. But broadening the way we think about what it means to eat Mediterranean will make it even more of a win going forward.
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