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What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

  • January 26, 2021
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If you’re looking to make a change in your eating habits with an eye toward limiting your intake of unhealthy foods and boosting your consumption of foods that are good for you, you’ll soon come across something called the Mediterranean diet.

As it’s commonly understood, the Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that emphasizes foods that are frequently eaten in countries that border the Mediterranean sea. As it happens, this comprises a list of some 21 countries, and they don’t all eat alike.

But what they do have in common is that their diets are largely plant-based rather than animal-based and they mostly consume fats that are healthy, like olive oil, fish oil, nuts, and fruits like avocados as opposed to saturated fats like butter, cheese, lard, and coconut oil.

The Mediterranean diet was originally popularized in the early 1960s by Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, who had previously developed the boxed meal known as the K-Ration (K for Keys) that was distributed to members of the U.S. armed forces during World War II.

In a 1958 study of men in seven countries (Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Finland, the Netherlands, United States, and Japan), Keys first called attention to what he claimed was a link between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease. Though the study was flawed (Keys dismissed data from countries that failed to support his findings), the idea is still with us and is more popular than ever.

What, for instance, is to be made of countries like Norway, Denmark, or France, whose residents consume high-fat diets and yet have a low incidence of heart disease? And what of Chile, where the occurrence of heart disease is high despite a low-fat diet?

Well, the way Keys decided to handle it was to simply eliminate the data from those countries from his study, an act which, by today’s standards, would constitute scientific misconduct. Regardless of whether it will help you live to 100 (as did Keys himself, it should be noted), the Mediterranean diet is balanced and will not likely do you any harm. And it’s unquestionably delicious. 

The interesting thing about the Mediterranean diet is that in its broad outline, there is nothing uniquely Mediterranean about it. It simply consists of the following four parameters:

  • Fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats consumed on a daily basis
  • Fish, poultry, beans, and eggs consumed on a weekly basis
  • Dairy products such as milk and cheese consumed in moderate amounts
  • Red meat and sweets consumed in limited amounts

Most of this is fairly straightforward, despite the vagueness of terms such as “moderate” and “limited.” Note that the Mediterranean diet has nothing to do with cutting calories. It’s more a matter of redistributing the calories that you do eat so that most of them come from plant-based sources rather than animal-based ones.

To some extent, the Mediterranean diet has significant overlap with what we think of as the traditional Middle Eastern diet, including foods like hummus, falafel, olives, rice, chickpeas, yogurt, and dates. 

Other versions of the Mediterranean diet might look like the Greek diet, which incorporates large amounts of vegetables and grains along with olive oil, fish, nuts, and yogurt. Likewise, the Italian diet, which incorporates much of the above, along with tomatoes, bread, and pasta, as well as the diets of the Mediterranean regions of France, Spain, and North Africa. 

Weight loss, as you probably know, has to do with how many calories you consume versus how many you burn through ordinary activity and exercise. If you burn more calories than you take in then you lose weight. If you take in more than you burn, you gain weight. As such, it should be clear that if you consume more calories on the Mediterranean diet than you burn, you will gain weight. And if you consume fewer calories on the Mediterranean diet than you burn, then you will lose weight.

So if your goal with the Mediterranean diet is to lose weight, be sure to eat less than you burn off while still maintaining a healthy diet. But if your goal is to enjoy a nutritious and delicious diet, emphasizing plant-based foods and healthy fats, then the Mediterranean diet will serve you well. 

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