Why the Mediterranean Diet is the Healthiest Way to Eat
- October 19, 2020
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It may not seem as trendy as intermittent fasting, veganism, or going gluten-free, but the Mediterranean diet has a lot going for it. This longtime eating style has been keeping Southern Europeans slim and healthy for generations, and it’s easy (and tasty) to adopt. It’s also an effective way to help reduce your risk of heart disease. (Bonus: it’s good for the planet, too!)
“The most appealing aspect of the Mediterranean diet is that it’s a long-term style of eating, rather than a temporary diet that involves counting, weighing, measuring and avoiding certain foods,” says Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, an Arizona-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Two.
What it is and why it’s good for you
The Mediterranean diet doesn’t have a firm set of rules to follow or a signature dish. Rather, it incorporates foods that people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have eaten for centuries, with emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts, as well as heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil. Fish and seafood are enjoyed a couple of times a week, while dairy, eggs, and poultry are eaten in moderation. Red meat and sugary sweets are saved for special occasions. Herbs and spices are predominantly used to flavor food, rather than salt.
“It’s all about creating a delicious balance,” Danahy says. “Eating more of the traditional foods of the diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, improved cognitive function, and healthier weight.”
That’s all thanks to the abundant amount of health-promoting nutrients this eating style delivers. By focusing your meals around plant foods, you’re loading up on antioxidants and anti-inflammatory polyphenols, which actively work to fight disease and lower inflammation in your body. And by limiting ultra-processed foods and red meat, you’re reducing added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats. Eat this way, keep active, and get enough quality sleep, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for good health.
How to adopt this eating style
There’s no single way to follow the Mediterranean diet. For inspiration, cook dishes from Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, or other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Seek cookbooks for recipes or create your own menus with your favorite ingredients.
“The most appealing part of this diet is that it is sustainable and satisfying,” says Julene Stassou, MS, RD, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and author of The Mediterranean Diet Weight Loss Solution. “It’s not a ‘crash’ diet, and there is plenty of food so that a person is satiated.”
You can even adopt the Mediterranean way of eating while managing other eating goals:
Vegetarian- and vegan-friendly
Because the majority of Mediterranean-style foods are plant-based, you won’t have problems avoiding animal products while following this eating style. “Being vegan can easily overlap with the Mediterranean diet because the region naturally lends itself to an abundance of produce and grains that are incorporated into the daily diet,” says Denise Hazime, the California-based author of 5-Ingredient Mediterranean Cookbook. “They also tend to use olive oil as the source of fat for cooking, and less butter.”
Adopting the Mediterranean diet may even inspire you to experiment with vegetarianism or veganism. As it takes a “flexitarian” approach, it means you still get to eat meat occasionally, but you’re ultimately focusing on plant foods first. “If someone wants to skip fish and dairy, they can add more legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables and still get the protein and other nutrients they need,” Danahy says.
Easy to go gluten-free
The Mediterranean diet may be well-suited for you if you need to avoid wheat, rye, barley, and other gluten-containing foods. “Almost all of the foods in the Mediterranean diet food pyramid are naturally gluten-free,” Danahy says. “The exception would be the wheat-based grains, rye, and barley. But there are numerous gluten-free grains, like amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, rice, quinoa or gluten-free oats that can be substituted very easily.” Along with other gluten-free ways to get healthy carbs on your plate like sweet potato, corn, and fresh fruit.
Plus, when following this eating style, you may realize that you eat gluten-containing products less frequently because you’re consuming fewer processed foods like donuts, bagels, and pastries.
Aligns with intermittent fasting
There are no nutritional guidelines for intermittent fasting; rather, people decide to eat or fast during certain hours. There’s no reason why you can’t enjoy Mediterranean-inspired foods. “You not only get the benefits of fasting,” Danahy says, “but when you’re eating, you’re fueling up on foods that promote improved health.”
Many of the Mediterranean diet’s nutrient-dense staples may make your fasting periods easier to endure. “Stick to eating high-fiber foods—such as nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables—and high protein foods—including beans, nuts, tofu, and fish—during your eating window, and drink lots of water,” Stassou says. “This will help you get through your fasting period because it will prevent hunger.”
Adding something sweet
There’s very little added sugar in a traditional Mediterranean diet. People may reach for a piece of fruit, but there are other sweet options. “Baklava is a super-indulgent Mediterranean dessert, but if you’re looking for something a little less decadent but still satisfy your sweet tooth, I’d recommend [something like] rice pudding, almond cookies, or date and nut balls,” Hazime says. “All of these are really easy to make and are healthier options.”
Dark chocolate is another possibility. “It’s low in sugar and high in antioxidants,” Danahy says. “A small piece, along with some fruit or melted and drizzled over a bowl of berries, is a decadent but healthier way to enjoy something sweet while still sticking to the Mediterranean way of eating.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.
Lisa Fields is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition, fitness, sleep and psychology. Her work has been published in Reader’s Digest, WebMD, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Women’s Health, Shape, Self and other publications. She lives in South Jersey, outside of Philadelphia. Learn more about Lisa at writtenbylisafields.com.