The Skinny on Mediterranean Diet; Bringing back the Good Old Wholesome Days!
U.S. News tied it #1 in their “Best Overall Diet” category.
Fitness Magazine calls it the “The World’s Healthiest Diet.”
WebMD flat out said they “love” the Mediterranean Diet.
“It’s more than a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” said Atlanta registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, who teaches the Mediterranean diet to her clients. “It also encourages eating with friends and family, socializing over meals, mindfully eating your favorite foods, as well as mindful movement and exercise for a complete healthy lifestyle.”
So, What is the Mediterranean Diet?
It’s no secret that people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea not only have a higher life expectancy, they also suffer less from cardiovascular ailments and even cancer than most Americans. What’s not surprising however is how they do it; weight control, an active lifestyle, and a diet low in saturated fat, sugar, and red meat, and high in nuts, fruits, vegetable and other healthy foods. The Mediterranean Diet is not just a passing fad; it offers a host of health benefits, such as diabetes prevention and control, cancer prevention, heart and brain health, and weight loss. For avid dieters. Mediterranean Diet is also great for weight loss while avoiding chronic disease.
If you look at it critically, there is no such thing as a “Mediterranean diet. Spanish and French eat differently from Italians, who eat differently than Greeks. However, many components of their diet are similar. In a nutshell, Mediterranean Diet is a way of life that involves eating real food. Think of it this way… fish instead of fried chicken, Olive oil instead of butter, nuts against chips, Brown rice instead of a white-flour roll, and platefuls of fruits and vegetables. Hassle-free food swaps like these keep the heart-healthy, bringing power of the Mediterranean diet on your plate – one swap at a time.
Health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet?
As opposed to many controversial diets, the Mediterranean diet has received applaud from the medical community since many studies verify its benefits.
- Lower Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
There is a reason why this diet is also called the American heart association diet. We have ample research to believe that a Mediterranean diet could be used to alleviate the risk of cardiovascular diseases. A study that featured in The New England Journal of Medicine compared a control diet with two Mediterranean diets over a period of 5 years. The research proved that the diet does indeed leave the dieter less vulnerable to cardiovascular issues, including heart attack, stroke, and death by 30 percent in comparison with the control group. However, more research is needed to determine whether the lower instances of heart disease in the Mediterranean countries can be partly attributed to extended social support systems and more physical activity.
- Better sleep quality
Researchers in a 2018 study explored the relation of a Mediterranean diet to sleep. The research indicated that adults who follow the Mediterranean diet as a way of life do sleep better at nights.
- Weight loss
The Mediterranean diet is also your best friend if you are trying to shed a few pounds. The authors of a 2016 review have observed that in comparison to a low-fat diet, people with obesity lost more pounds while on the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet group saw similar results as participants on other standard weight loss diets.
A plant-based diet, replete with fresh and organic vegetables and fruits, is the cornerstone of a Mediterranean diet that keeps cancer at bay in a multitude of ways: delaying tumor growth, lowering inflammation, stopping cell mutation, protecting DNA from damage, and providing antioxidants. Olive oil, a staple of a Mediterranean diet, lowers the risk of bowel, colon, and pancreatic cancers, because of its superb antioxidant properties. It also hinders the development of cancer cells due to reduced oxidative stress and lowered inflammation. Not to mention, it is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and promoting balanced blood sugar.
- Treats Diabetes
By default, the Mediterranean diet follows an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern, which helps in combatting diseases related to chronic inflammation, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. By controlling the production of excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and causes our bodies to store fats, the Mediterranean diet might be so beneficial for preventing diabetes.
Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid; What to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
Plant based foods such as seeds, nuts, legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats such as olive oil should be worked into every meal as part of the Mediterranean diet. As a rule of thumb, here is the Macro breakdown for the Mediterranean diet:
Here are the six essential components of the Mediterranean diet:
Be it any of the three major meals of the day, healthy grains are a great source of anti-inflammatory substances, antioxidants, and fiber. A study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine linked whole grains with lower mortality, especially in prevention against chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Common whole grains include oats and brown rice, but try to create variety with bulgur, buckwheat, Farro, amaranth, and quinoa. Supplement your grain intake with other whole-grain products, such whole-wheat or brown pasta or bread. Look for the term “whole” or “whole grain” on the food package.
Whether pickled, roasted, sautéed, steamed, raw, or grilled, vegetables should be on your plate every meal. Be it over pizza, tossed into salads mix, turned into spaghetti, into scrambled eggs. Get your daily fill of leafy green vegetables, such as wild edible leafy greens, onions, beetroot, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, artichokes, and lettuce in large quantities. And even starchy vegetables like root vegetables and potatoes are to be consumed generously.
The best proteins to eat on a Mediterranean diet include shellfish and fishes rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as oysters, anchovies, mackerel, arctic char, and salmon. Not to mention, you can also get your protein from plant proteins such as seeds, nuts and legume, such as foods containing fiber and unsaturated fats. Not to mention, these can add texture and a zing of flavors to salads or main courses.
Eat fruits aplenty in the Mediterranean diet. Healthy fruits include those packed with antioxidants and fiber, including figs, grapes, avocado, and olives. Consume as many types of fruit as possible. Although there is no restriction on when to eat fruits, try to reserve them for fixing sugar cravings such as in the afternoon or after dinner.
Olive oil is the primary healthy fat of the Mediterranean diet and is used for cooking, baking, sauces, vinaigrettes, and more. In addition to olive oil, the American Heart Association recommends healthy cooking oils such as canola, peanut, and safflower.
Red wine offers a host of health benefits as proven by a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study suggests that one serving of red wine a day escalated the amount of good cholesterol in your body. Not only red wine enhances your food palate, it helps you unwind as well.
Here is a chart to show the recommended intake of each food group:
Avoid These Unhealthy Foods
You should avoid these unhealthy ingredients and foods at all cost when following the Mediterranean diet:
What to Drink
Water should make up the majority of your liquid intake while on the Mediterranean diet. However, Coffee and tea are fine but avoid sugar laden fruit juices and beverages.
Healthy Mediterranean Diet Snacks
Even though you don’t have to count calories on a Mediterranean diet, its better limit your diet to thrice a day, especially when your aim is to lose weight on the side. However, if the hunger pangs kick in between meals, there are plenty of healthy snack options to satiate your tummy:
- Apple slices with almond butter.
- Greek yogurt.
- Leftovers from the night before.
- Some berries or grapes.
- A handful of nuts.
- Carrots or baby carrots.
- A piece of fruit.
- Hummus with carrots/celery/cucumber/bell pepper
- Avocado on Whole grain toast
How to Follow the Diet at Restaurants
It’s very simple to make most restaurant meals suitable for the Mediterranean diet.
- Make sure to consume fish or seafood for your main course.
- Ask for your food to be fried in extra virgin olive oil.
- Only eat whole-grain bread instead of white, brushed up with olive oil instead of butter.
- Have a side of vegetables with your entree instead of mashed potatoes or fries.
How to Get Started on the Mediterranean Diet? A Simple Shopping List for The Diet
Before you start prepping the Mediterranean diet recipes, make sure your pantry is stocked up with the right food groups. Tip: shop at the perimeter of the store where the whole foods are. You want to steer clear of processed foods and the temptations they present. Here’s a sample Mediterranean food list to see you through the month:
- Vegetables: Garlic, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, beat, bell peppers, cauliflower, green beans, eggplant, okra, Broccoli, onions,, tomatoes, and Carrots.
- Fruits: Grapes, oranges, tangerines, pears, cherries, peaches, cantaloupe, melons, figs, apricots, bananas, apples, other seasonal fruits etc.
- Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, Strawberries, etc.
- Frozen veggies
- Grains: Whole-grain pasta and bread, oats, and/or quinoa.
- Legumes: Beans, pulses, Lentils, etc.
- Nuts: Cashews, Almonds, Walnut, pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts etc.
- Seeds: Pumpkin seeds, Sunflower seeds, etc.
- Condiments: Spices like Cinnamon, Turmeric, pepper, cumin, all spice chili, salt, and herbs like rosemary, rhyme, oregano, parsley, dill, basil, mint.
- Fish: Trout, mackerel, sardines, and Salmon, calamari.
- Shellfish and Shrimp.
- Sweet potatoes, Potatoes, and spaghetti squash or zucchini.
- Greek yogurt.
- Cheese, such as Feta, graviera, mitzithra, ricotta, parmesan.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
- Pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs.
Chuck out all unhealthy temptations from your home, such as processed foods, crackers, white bread, pastries, candy, ice-cream, and sodas.
Mediterranean Diet 7-day meal plan
Here is a sample menu of a 7-day Mediterranean diet meal plan to help you get a good start:
Breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with berries and a drizzle of honey
Lunch: Lentil salad with capers, sun dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and a balsamic vinaigrette
Snack: 2 ounces (oz) of hummus with celery/carrots/cucumber sticks.
Dinner: whole-grain pizza with home-made marinara, grilled vegetables, pine nuts, and low-fat cheese as toppings
Breakfast: 1 fried egg, 1 whole wheat toast, plus one apple
Lunch: Whole grain sandwich, layered with avocado, stuffed with eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, and onion.
Snack: handful of pistachios and almonds
Dinner: Oven roasted salmon flavored with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and rosemary, served with one roasted potato tossed with chives.
Breakfast: 1 cup of whole-grain oats flavored with a drizzle of honey, a handful of chopped dates and almonds, raspberries, and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
Lunch: A quinoa bowl topped with sliced chicken, feta, and veggies
Snack: platter of olives, a couple slices of cheese, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes
Dinner: Tomato & Artichoke Gnocchi
Breakfast: 2 Whole wheat toasts layered with ricotta and topped with figs
Lunch: Boiled chickpeas tossed with white onion, green pepper, and olives and seasoned with pepper, vinegar, and olive oil
Snack: Toss together 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes + 1/4 cup olives + 1-ounce cheese
Dinner: Red Chili-Flaked Shrimp with Herbed Garbanzo Beans
Breakfast: 1 whole-wheat English muffin with sugar-free peanut butter and a peach/apple.
Lunch: grilled chicken with a side of Golden Cauliflower Rice
Snack: Greek yogurt tossed either 1/2 cup pineapple chunks or 1/2 fresh orange
Dinner: Grilled sea bass with baby arugula leaves, corn on the cob, and sugar snap peas, plus one ounce dark chocolate for dessert.
Breakfast: Omelets with feta accompanied by 1 whole wheat toast
Lunch: Vegan Butternut Alfredo with Zoodles
Snack: Baba Ghanoush with vegetables
Dinner: whole-grain pasta cooked with home-made tomato sauce, grilled vegetables, olive oil, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Breakfast: 1 whole grain bagel topped with fat-free ricotta cheese, sugar free peanut butter, and a drizzle of honey.
Lunch: Stewed zucchini, potato, onion, yellow squash, in a tomato and herb sauce.
Snack: Yogurt topped with figs
Dinner: Roasted Anchovies, mixed with boiled greens and drizzled with olive oil and some lemon
- Beverages: Try to drink at least glasses of water in a day, in addition to herbal beverages and an occasional sip of red wine after dinner.
- Do not skimp on Olive oil in any meal, since it is the main source of fat. You need to consume at least 2 tablespoons a day to reap its many benefits. Olive oil makes you feel sated, which is crucial when you are eating a meal containing only vegetables.
- Try and eat your main meal as early as you can before bedtime.
- Make yogurt and cheese your main dairy sources.
- Reduce consumption of salt, sugar and products that contain them.
- Consume a variety of grains, fruit and vegetables every day.
Will Mediterranean Diet help you lose weight?
A Mediterranean diet will inevitably supplement your weight loss goals. While a lot of people are of the opinion that a dish so rich in fats (remember all the cheeses, avocados, olive oil, and nuts we mentioned above) would make them fat. However, research says otherwise.
Of course, it all depends on your portion sizes and which parts of the diet you choose to eat more of. For instance, you could include a “calorie deficit” into your Mediterranean diet menu or exercise daily to shed off extra pounds. Obviously if you start the debate of Mediterranean diet vs keto diet, Keto would come out as the winner for fast weight loss. But that doesn’t mean that slow and steady can’t succeed. If it’s of any help, the 2019 U.S. News & World Report Best Diets ranked the Mediterranean diet as No. 1 for Best Diets Overall and it ranks 17 in their list of Best Weight-Loss Diets.
Moving to the Mediterranean Diet One Step at a Time
Moving to the Mediterranean diet is indubitably a drastic lifestyle change for those of us who have been binging on unhealthy fare for the better parts of our lives. Here is a tip that helped me in those initial days, add one healthy item to replace an unhealthy item at a time. For instance, starting today, you can start having fruit for dessert after dinner instead of ice cream. Stick with your healthy choice for two weeks to give yourself time to adjust to it, then make two more changes. Slow and steady is the only way forward.
Take your diet to the Mediterranean one step at a time with a few simple changes:
- Start lunch with a vegetable and olive salad, drizzled with olive oil, before moving on to the main course.
- Try oatmeal topped with fresh fruit and nuts and sweetened with honey for breakfast instead of pancakes or bacon and eggs.
- Look for tasty new recipes such as breakfast ideas for Mediterranean diet, snack ideas, and so on to feel motivated.
- Be it for cooking or dressing salads, replace animal fats with olive oil.
- Slow down on the red meat and eat more of lean poultry and fish
- Stop frying poultry, fish, and meat, and grill instead.
- Try replacing cream with yoghurt in soups, casseroles, and sauces
- Munching on healthy nuts like walnuts, pistachios, and almonds instead of savory biscuits, pretzels, potato chips or any other fattening or processed snack.
- Complementing meals with red wine instead of beer or mixers.
Following the Mediterranean Diet in a Pocket-friendly way
Some people complain that the diet is weighing heavy on their pockets, so we have some tips to help you craft your own Mediterranean diet on a budget:
- Include more canned beans in your diet, since they are easily available, cheap, and packed with protein and fiber. Braise them with veggies for a savory stew, blend them for a mouthwatering hummus, or throw them in salads.
- At a time when meat was a luxury, the original Mediterranean diet was meant for the peasant. Focus on eating a bigger portion of veggies, with meat as a side. Going meatless could be the most affordable way of following a Mediterranean diet.
- Eat more eggs. Not only are they nutrient dense, they are plentiful and cheap, and versatile! Imagine a dinner of frittata with a sprinkle of feta cheese, spinach, roasted cherry tomatoes, and a side salad. Easy on the wallet, great for the palate.
- Hit the farmer’s markets at the closing hours. Since the Mediterranean diet focuses more on healthy produce, try hitting the farmer’s markets later in the day and fill up your grocery bags. Growers usually mark down the price at that time.
- Look up budget friendly Mediterranean recipes online. For instance, I found this great recipe of pasta puttanesca. Just sauté some tinned sardines in extra virgin olive oil, add in capers, olives, canned tomatoes and kale, and season with salt and red chili flakes. Toss in boiled whole-wheat spaghetti, and voila; you have a healthy and super cheap (yet kind of fancy) meal at the table. Add a glass of red wine, and you have yourself a dinner date!
- Stock up on sales. This goes especially for foods that can be frozen for later, like meats, poultry, berries, nuts, seafood. For herbs, freeze them in ice cube trays with olive oil to retain their freshness.