Healthy Eating Made Simple, the Mediterranean Way
by Sara J. Pluta
Diets, cleanses, fasts, eat this, don’t eat that, butter is bad, wine is good, carbs make you fat, fat makes you skinny, eat like a cave man, stay away from soy, devour meat at every meal, avoid all animal products entirely…the plethora of nutrition advice on every web page, book cover, magazine spread, newspaper headline, etc. is overwhelming and downright confusing! Diets sell, remember that. People want to be told what to eat or what not to eat and authors and food companies know this. Look at the present craze of Paleo or the low-carb obsession years ago. Did you bite the bait?
What is a well-intentioned, health-seeking person to do? We can easily become brainwashed into compliance, or write off nutrition advice altogether and head straight for the vending machine or fast food joint. But hang tight, it turns out researchers asked if one diet could be hailed superior in terms of health outcomes. When scholars compared every major diet (low carb, low fat, low glycemic, Mediterranean, Paleolithic, vegan, etc.) and published studies, the outcome was remarkably straightforward. The winner is….REAL food, with a diet set to broader, more individualized guidelines. Say goodbye to rigid principles and strict guidelines and say hello to a variety of wholesome, real food.
I know, I know…eating whatever tastes good is enjoyable. However, if we can eat what tastes good and nourish our bodies and minds, then we are creating a recipe for health and overall well-being; Success!
It is proven that what we consume on a regular basis really does make a difference in our quality of life, life span, and prevention or decrease in risk of most chronic disease. Put simply, a diet of minimally processed foods as close to nature as possible, heavy on plants, light on animal protein, and void of preservatives and additives, is absolutely associated with health promotion and disease prevention.
When heart disease became a problem during the 20th century in the Americas, researchers studying the cause of heart disease found that people living around the Mediterranean Sea had very little heart disease comparatively and began to look at the way these populations ate.
In tune with the idea that no diet is superior, the Mediterranean diet is more of a way of eating, compiling traditional eating habits of people living in Spain, Italy, Greece, France and the Middle East.
The Mediterranean diet stands the test of time and falls in line with the criteria of whole food emphasis. This diet is a gold standard and the healthfulness of the Mediterranean dietary pattern continues to receive strong backing through nutrition research and by large epidemiological studies published in hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles.
Let’s look at some highlights of this delicious and nutritious way of eating:
- Eat natural, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, olives and olive oil as the base of all meals.
- Make olive oil your primary source of dietary fat.
- Reduce the consumption of red meat to a few times monthly. Instead, focus on heart-healthy ﬁsh and shellﬁsh, such as tuna, herring, sardines, salmon, clams, and shrimp, eaten several times a week.
- Cheese and yogurt are eaten regularly, but in low to moderate amounts. The calcium can be good for bone and heart health.
- Nuts, legumes and seeds are a good source of healthy fats, protein, and ﬁber. These are ideal additions for ﬂavor and texture.
- Focus on herbs and spices for ﬂavor. This helps to lessen the use of salt and fat when cooking. Not only do they taste great, but they are loaded with antioxidants and healing beneﬁts.
- Eggs add protein and nutrients like vitamin E and brain-supportive choline. Eat alone or add to baked goods.
- Limit sweets and focus on fresh fruits loaded with vitamins and ﬁber.
- Drink moderate amounts of wine (one to two glasses per day for men and one glass per day for women). Yes, that’s correct, you can drink wine!
- Get regular exercise.
- Eat in the company of others. Enjoy your food and savor the ﬂavor with friends.
Not too bad, right? The Mediterranean way of eating is not a one-size-ﬁts-all approach. Taking into consideration the above guidelines, one could quite easily create healthy, delicious meals 24/7, 365 days a year and never get bored or burned out on measuring, eliminating favorite foods, counting calories, eating bland low-fat foods, forcing huge chunks of meat down, or skipping that lovely glass of Pinot with dinner. Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t. Countless studies show the beneﬁts of basic compliance.
One of the largest studies, PREDIMED, made headlines in 2013 for having caused a substantial reduction in cardiovascular disease. It took 7,447 individuals who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease and randomized them into three groups: A Mediterranean Diet with added extra virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean Diet with added nuts, and a low-fat control group. The study lasted almost ﬁve years and the participants were not asked to reduce calories or increase exercise.
Some of the ﬁndings include:
- The risk of combined heart attack, stroke and death from cardiovascular disease was reduced by 30% in the Med + Olive Oil group, and 28% in the Med + Nuts group.
- People with high blood pressure, lipid problems or obesity responded the best.
- The levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol decreased with statistical signiﬁcance in both Med groups, but not in the low-fat group.
- The Mediterranean Diet reduced the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 52%.
- The Mediterranean Diet showed signiﬁcant improvements in various cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood sugar levels, blood pressure, total HDL cholesterol ratio, and C – reactive protein (CRP).
The risk of stroke was reduced by 39% (31% Med + Olive Oil and 47% Med + Nuts).
What about weight loss, the number one reason people choose a diet? While the Mediterranean Diet is not a weight loss diet per se, it is a healthy whole one that will often result in reduction of weight, should the individual need that. To encourage this, eating small, balanced meals throughout the day will help your body maximize the nutrition you feed it and keep the metabolic ﬁre stoked. More signiﬁcantly though, a Mediterranean Diet is the foundation of heart health, helps balance blood sugar, provides ample amounts of macro and micro nutrients, and is enjoyable to the senses. Think of all the delectable meals you can put together or dine out on with a basis of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and olive oil, sprinkled with Omega-3 rich seafood, decadent cheese, and a glass of your favorite vino. Let’s toast to health, happiness, and delicious eating!