Written by: Leora Aframian, MS, RDN
#1 in Best Diets Overall
If you are a nutrition or healthy eating aficionado you have most probably heard the
buzz surrounding the Mediterranean Diet. It was one of the more popular diets among nutrition professionals in recent years due to its association with a great number of health benefits. In fact, The Mediterranean Diet was ranked “#1 in Best Diets Overall” by US News and World Report.
The base of the diet
This style of meal planning is plant-based with an emphasis on whole grains, healthy unsaturated fat sources, and omega-3 fatty acids, including, olive oil and fish. Conversely, saturated fat, and simple carbohydrates such as granulated sugar and highly processed foods are used sparingly.
This diet works great for those who are looking for more of a relaxed healthy eating pattern that is sustainable rather than a restrictive formal diet. It includes nutritionally valuable sources from all the macronutrients; quality carbohydrates, proper protein sources, and heart-healthy fat. So, if you’re looking for a healthy all-inclusive way to incorporate each food group into your daily routine it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at the Mediterranean style of eating, its health benefits and decide if it is a match with your nutritional goals.
The Mediterranean Eating Pattern
The Mediterranean diet is modeled after the region that borders the Mediterranean Sea. Think Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Morocco. Although each country may practice their own particular cultural cuisine, the main features of the diet remain similar among them.
The lists below describe the core foods included in the Mediterranean style diet and
- Fruit: usually eaten as a dessert
- Whole grains
- Fish and seafood
- Plain water as a beverage
- Herbs and spices to flavor foods.
- Mixed Nuts
- Cheese and yogurt
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Red Wine: one glass a day for women and up to two for men (optional).
- Red meat
- Highly processed snack food
- Full-fat dairy products such as milk and creams
- Butter or other solid sources of fat.
The practice usually involves choosing seasonal fruits and vegetables, as this is a staple of the diet.
Three Mediterranean Eating Plan Health Benefits
1. Cholesterol Control
When considering cardiovascular health guidelines, adequate fiber intake is one of the common recommendations in order to help lower “bad” LDL (Low-Density Lipoproteins) cholesterol which can cause Atherosclerosis or the accumulation of plaque in the arteries.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain carbohydrates are rich sources of fiber to help keep LDL cholesterol down. Additionally, phytochemicals such as the stanols and sterols found in fruit, vegetables, low-fat yogurt, whole wheat bread, and cereals can further have a positive effect on LDL cholesterol levels to keep them at goal.
Replacing saturated fats (such as butter and red meat) with unsaturated fat sources (olive oil and seafood ) can also have a positive effect on reducing LDL. Although the unsaturated fat source of olive oil is a better choice than traditional saturated fats, it is still important to note that olive oil is considered a calorically dense food. Olive oil contains about 120 calories per tablespoon. As such, it is advisable to not be overly generous with olive oil. Instead, stay light when dressing your meals. You would not be doing your waistline any favors by overdoing the fat factor, even if it’s unsaturated.
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2. Diabetes Prevention
In addition to cardiovascular benefits, the Mediterranean Diet is also associated with type two diabetes disease prevention. An article published in The American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Spectrum journal reported that adherence to the Mediterranean meal pattern was associated with a 23% reduced risk of developing the disease by high-risk individuals.
The article suggests the mechanism behind the benefits may be related to the combination of the plant-based nature of the diet as well as the anti-inflammatory aspect related to olive oil and seafood which may improve insulin sensitivity (Boucher, 2017).
It’s no surprise that this diet was awarded “#1 in Best Diabetes Diet” by US News and World Report as well. In general, a plant-based diet that is low in processed foods and added sugar and instead, carries whole-grain carbohydrate sources with low-fat protein is a good choice for those who are at risk of developing type two diabetes or who have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes.
3. Improved Cognitive Function
As we age, memory and cognition is an aspect of health that needs to be catered to. Cognition can decline, which can further impact our nutritional status as it can affect chewing and swallowing abilities in the later stages. As the average life expectancy continues to increase, Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease can become more prevalent.
One reason the Mediterranean Diet may be associated with improved cognition relates to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory aspects of the diet which provides protection for the brain. Additionally, various studies are cited in which green leafy vegetable intake was associated with slower cognitive decline (Wright, 2018).
Following a plant-based diet with healthy sources of protein and nuts can be beneficial to those interested in maintaining optimal cognitive function through preventative measures. When following any diet or meal pattern it is important to keep portion sizes manageable and balanced. Too much of any food, even the healthiest choices will be stored as fat which can have a negative effect on the body over time. Keeping a physically active lifestyle in any way that serves you is an important aspect of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Keep an open mind when evaluating your dietary choices; don’t be afraid to try new things and explore new ways to meet your nutritional goal.
1. Boucher, Jackie L. “Mediterranean Eating Pattern” Diabetes Spectrum 30.2 (2017): 72-76. From Research to Practice. American Diabetes Association. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds16-0074
2. Godman, Heidi. “Adopt a Mediterranean Diet Now for Better Health Later” Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Medical School, 06 Nov. 2013.
3. “What Is the Mediterranean Diet?” Mediterranean Diet. US News and World Report, n.d.
Retrieved from: https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mediterranean-diet
4. Wright, KC. “Mediterranean Diet Improves Cognition, Memory, and Brain Volume – Today’s Dietitian Magazine”Today’s Dietitian. Great Valley Publishing Company, June 2018.