Decoding Popular Diets: The Mediterranean Diet

If you're looking for a diet that's been extensively studied with scientific evidence to back its heart-healthy claims, the Mediterranean diet is for you.  The lifestyle approach to healthy eating may help prevent chronic disease while boosting heart + brain health, and with the plant-centric focus, weight management goals will likely fall into place (although a little extra effort may be required).  Want to learn more about the Mediterranean diet and what practicing it looks like?  Keep reading!   

As a review, here are the basics of the Mediterranean diet:  

The premise: Adopt the Mediterranean approach to eating and cooking for a heart-healthy diet.  What's included: Lots of plants!  The majority of the diet consists of fruits, veggies, whole grains, seafood, olive oil, legumes, nuts, seeds and the occasional glass of red wine. What's avoided: Unhealthy fats!  Limit red meat, choose olive oil over butter, and skip high-fat dairy options.  

The changes:  The lifestyle approach emphasizes plants (namely vegetables) and limits red meat, so if you're the meat and potatoes type, your kitchen might need an overhaul.  Additionally, you may need to up your seafood intake as it's the primary animal protein source of the Mediterranean diet.  Other swaps include butter for olive oil and beer for red wine (in moderation!) along with an overall reduction of highly processed foods.  

The good:  As mentioned earlier, the Mediterranean diet offers an evidence-based plan for improved heart health.  These benefits can be seen in those with + without a healthy heart, making the diet a potential fit for both cardiovascular disease prevention and recovery. Research published in 2017 shows that following the Mediterranean diet may also correlate with improved brain health, a decrease in obesity-related pain, and even a lower risk of ADHD.  

Looking at the individual components of the diet, it's not surprising that it promotes health.  Eating more fruits and vegetables will increase vitamin, mineral, fiber and antioxidant intake.  Replacing saturated fat with healthier options (like olive oil) has been associated with an improvement in cholesterol levels.  Reducing highly processed foods will help cut calories without cutting important nutrients.  And increasing seafood intake may increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids, known for benefits related to heart health and inflammation.    

The questionable:  Honestly, there's not much about the Mediterranean diet that I question.  It encourages plant-based + whole foods, limits (but doesn't strictly prohibit) foods typically higher in saturated fat and sugar, and even allows for red wine!  It's a plan that focuses on food quality and quantity, both of which can impact your health.  And on top of it all, there's loads of science to support the primary health claims behind it.  While research shows that individual aspects of the plan (such as reducing saturated fat and increasing vegetable intake) lead to improved health, we're still unsure if or how much the adoption of the Mediterranean diet as a whole may amplify those benefits.

The recommendations:  Here are a few tips if you plan to follow the Mediterranean diet:

1.  Make plant-based foods a priority in every meal.  Aim for 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, choose whole grains over more processed or refined options, and include nuts, seeds, and legumes.  

2.  Aim to eat seafood at least twice per week and limit red meat to once per week.  Cut back on other animal-based products too, such as poultry and dairy, and choose low-fat or fat-free dairy options when available.  Use olive oil freely, but skip the butter (along with other substitutes that are high in saturated fat).  

3.  Feel free to drink red wine, but do so in moderation (max 1-2 glasses per day).  Skip or limit other forms of alcohol.  

4.  Approach the diet as a lifestyle change as that's what it's meant to be. If weight loss is desired, watch your portion sizes, specifically when eating healthy fats, as all fats contain more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates.  

5.  As with any new diet plan, work with a Registered Dietitian for guidance in adopting the approach in a healthy manner.  

Do you follow the Mediterranean diet?  What's the biggest challenge you've encountered?  What health improvements, if any, have you noticed?  Let me know in the comments below!