A distinct version of the Mediterranean diet is followed on the Blue Zone island of Ikaria, Greece. It emphasizes olive oil, vegetables, beans, fruit, moderate amounts of alcohol and low quantities of meat and dairy products.
Consume Fish in Abundance
Seafood fans will rejoice over a diet that recommends a minimum of 2 to 3 servings of fish each week! The benefits are right there in the filet. It’s a fact that most fish—including fresh salmon, mackerel, herring, blue and albacore tuna, sardines, and even anchovies—is a rich source of omega-3 healthy fats.
While the Mediterranean diet puts more of an emphasis on fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, Eating Well says lean fish like cod and tilapia are still viable options. If you’re not used to eating a lot of fish, no worries. Aim for at least one fish night a week. There are tons of easy, no fuss, no mess ways to cook fish. If you don’t like eating it on its own, you can always incorporate it into other foods like a soup, salad, taco, or stir-fry.
Pour on the Olive Oil
Sure, the Mediterranean diet allows fats—if they come from heart-healthy olive oil rather than from artery-clogging saturated fats from butters, margarines, red meat, and cheese. Instead of cooking with vegetable or coconut oil, the Mediterranean diet has people using olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil.
According to Eating Well, olive oil is “rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which may improve HDL cholesterol, the ‘good’ type of cholesterol.” The best ways to incorporate olive oil into your diet is with salad dressings and vinaigrettes. You can drizzle it on dishes like chicken and fish to boost the flavour or simply swap it out in recipes of mashed potatoes, pasta, etc.
Be Moderate with Dairy
Low fat dairy products can be very healthy on a limited basis. That’s why the Greeks dismiss most high fat cheeses and cream sauces from the table in favor of Greek yogurt, which they consume in small quantities at breakfast or for snacks (i.e., tzatziki).
The problem with non-fat and low-fat dairy is that it tends to have sugar in it which is how it’s able to taste as good as those full-fat products that it’s competing with. Sydney Greene, MS, RD, talked to Eat This, Not That! and said the best thing to do is limit dairy intake to only a few times a week and choose plan, full-fat options that contain gut-friendly probiotics. “A whole-milk Greek yogurt will keep you more full than 0 percent yogurt, so you will be less likely to snack on less healthy options. Not a fan of plain yogurts? Flavor them with cinnamon or vanilla bean powder.”
Avoid Anything Processed
We’ve already established that the Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh, local, whole foods, which means anything packaged, canned, or boxed is avoided due to excess sodium, sugar, fats, and artificial additives that really do more harm than good to our bodies.
Only Healthy Whole Grains
Sure, pasta, bread, and rice can be part of your Mediterranean diet experience, as long you eat the kind that’s made using whole grains—and not the kind that’s manufactured using bleached, processed flour. Refined carbs are terrible for blood sugar, which is why the Mediterranean diet has people opting for whole grains.
Aim for about four small daily portions of whole-wheat bread, pasta or quinoa. The same source encourages eating these whole grains with some healthy fats and a protein. When it comes to eating pasta, using either whole grain pasta or legume-based noodles made out of black beans, lentils and chickpeas.
One of the most difficult parts of the Mediterranean diet is cutting out sugar. Suddenly, everything from your favorite cookie to your bar of chocolate of choice will be off limits. Focus on whole, natural sugars from sources like fresh fruit, fruit salads, and honey.
Cheers to Wine
Drinking wine, in moderation, is a big part of the Mediterranean diet. However, keep in mind that this is not an open invitation to over-imbibe. The Greeks consume only 1 to 2 glasses of wine per day, and typically only with meals. Women should only have a three-ounce serving of wine a day and men a 5-ounce serving per day.
Enjoy Regular Activities
The lifestyle portion of the Mediterranean diet focuses on a favorite physical active every day. It doesn’t matter what the activity is — biking, walking, gardening, yoga, running, or swimming — the idea is to enjoy working and moving every day.
Pass on Red Meat
If your diet consists mainly of unhealthy animal fats (i.e., beef, lamb, and pork); you’re bound to end up with high cholesterol, weight gain, and heart issues down the road. That’s why the Mediterranean diet allows small portions of lean, red meat purely in moderation. Instead, stick to white meats like fish, chicken, turkey, and seafood for lower fat, healthier meat protein sources in your meals.
Most people hear the word ‘fat’ and run in the other direction! While it’s true we don’t want to eat fatty foods, but there is such thing as healthy fats and the Mediterranean diet encourages people to make smart choices about the fats they eat. Stay away from saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats) which contribute to heart disease, and eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which can reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Eat more healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados, and avocado oil. The Mediterranean diet also encourages eating more foods with omega-3 fatty acids which can help “lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting, are associated with decreased sudden heart attack, improve the health of your blood vessels, and help moderate blood pressure,” writes Mayo Clinic. Since the Mediterranean diet eats lots of fish, we can’t forget those fatty fish, says Mayo Clinic, like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon, which are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables
The main components of a Mediterranean diet includings fruits, vegetables, pasta and rice. While lots of pasta and rice aren’t necessarily healthy, the majority of their diet is actually fruits and vegetables which as we all know are the best foods for us. The Mayo Clinic points out that people who live by this diet, primarily Greek residents, tend to eat meals with very little red meat and an average of 9 servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables a day! So if you’re planning on trying this diet in 2019, you’ve been forewarned that you’ll be eating lots of fruits and veggies!
Healthline suggests loading up on more tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and cucumbers. When it comes to fruits, try eating more apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons and peaches.
Drink Lots of Water
Possibly one of the biggest selling points about trying the Mediterranean diet is the ability to drink red wine (in moderation!), but what’s more important on this diet is drinking lots and lots of water. You may also drink coffee and tea, but do not indulge in any sugar sweeteners or beverages that are high in sugar like fruit juice and soda.
Eat More Nuts and Seeds
Usually we’re told to be cautious with nuts because they are high in fat, but they also have some awesome health benefits. The fat that they do contain is not saturated, says the Mayo Clinic, and the Mediterranean diet encourages people to eat more healthy unsaturated fats. Healthline suggests incorporating more almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Even though nuts and seeds are an important part of the Mediterranean diet, do not eat them in excess because they are high in calories. No more than a handful a day, says Mayo Clinic.
You can also add some extra flavor to meals by eating more herbs and spices like garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper.
It’s Not About Counting Calories
Most people don’t like diets because they tend to focus a lot on counting calories, food points, food diaries, all that nonsense. The nice thing about the Mediterranean diet is that people who are on it don’t have to count their calories or feel like they are starving themselves. It’s more about making healthier choices than it is about limiting food. People who are on this diet are required to eat more plant-based foods and healthy fats and less processed foods which seems simple enough, and quite frankly, makes the most sense!
Another thing that is important about this diet and a good thing to keep in mind while on it is that it’s not a fad diet, it’s a lifestyle. This is a diet that could be maintained long term. “First, to set fears aside, the Mediterranean diet is not a ‘diet’ in the sense that its purpose is not to help you lose weight. Rather, it’s a style of eating that emphasizes a well-balanced eating plan,” says NYC-based registered dietitian, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD to Eat This, Not That. It’s not about restricting a person’s diet. It’s more about living a healthier lifestyle.
The European lifestyle is known to promote good health, and it seems like a good portion of Europeans having lean bodies that can make you green with envy. Like many other European diets, the Mediterranean-style diet offers a lot of health benefits, and is worth considering incorporating into your own diet. What makes the diet so healthy is a combination of things, from fresh produce to olive oil and specific meats. When combined with the fact that Europeans tend to get regular exercise from walking pretty much everywhere, you have a complete healthy lifestyle that if mimicked, could leave you with lower risk of many serious health conditions and better overall health.
1. Lower Risk of Heart Disease
A main ingredient in Mediterranean cooking and flavoring is olive oil. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, which is a good component for a healthy heart. On the other hand, consuming foods high in saturated fats contribute to heart disease. Many Mediterranean dishes are cooked using oil instead of butter, and sauces and dressings include olive oil as one of the main ingredients.
Mix in different types of balsamic vinegars—whatever flavors you like—with oil, and you have a healthy salad dressing. There’s no need to buy pre-made salad dressings full of unnecessary fats when you can create a simple and easy healthy dressing with only a couple ingredients. Plus, the fresher the better, and a bit of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar makes a tasty salad topper.
2. Lower Risk of Diabetes
Olive oil has many health benefits. Since Mediterranean-style diets use olive oil in a number of ways, you’re likely to benefit from it if you follow the diet. Research studies have shown that olive oil, and specifically the Mediterranean diet, could help lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Researchers believe the high amount of rich minerals and phytochemicals found in a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce inflammation and insulin resistance. Your body needs to successfully break down sugars. If it can’t do this properly, you can be at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
3. Prevent High Blood Pressure
What you eat directly impacts your blood pressure, and the Mediterranean diet has food that can lower your blood pressure. On top of this, the diet consists of healthy foods that won’t increase your blood pressure either. Genetics can play a role in whether or not you have high blood pressure, but an unhealthy diet containing lots of fat and salt can also greatly increase it.
With next to no processed foods in the Mediterranean-style diet, you won’t be consuming unnecessary sodium that will raise and keep your blood pressure up. High blood pressure can lead to hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases, so this diet could help prevent these serious health risks.
4. Prevent Fatty Liver Disease
Many North Americans follow a diet full of processed foods that contain unnecessary fats, sugar, calories, and sodium. When following an unhealthy diet like this, there’s a greater risk of developing obesity, a main cause of fatty liver disease. The amount of olive oil in the Mediterranean diet helps rid a lot of saturated fats from your diet, which can help reduce the risk of fatty liver disease.
The diet also doesn’t include much red meat, since it’s full of saturated fats. Instead, chicken and mineral-rich fish are the meats of choice. And what and how much you eat of something that’s hard for your liver to process (like red meat) can lead to other liver diseases.
5. Potentially Longer Lifespan
Some studies link a longer lifespan to the Mediterranean-style diet. The diet can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which could ultimately contribute to people living longer lives. So start eating more fresh produce, nuts, seeds and olive oil to reap the health benefits, including the potential to live longer and lower your chance of heart problems.
While it would obviously be ideal to start this diet when you’re young and follow it throughout your life, research has shown that it can still positively affect those who are later in life. In fact, one study focused solely on people considered high risk for heart disease experienced a lower risk when they changed to the Mediterranean diet.
6. Improved Brain Function
Research suggests there is a correlation between the foods found in the Mediterranean-style and improved brain function, as well as a lower rate of mental health decline. As you age, your cognitive function declines, sometimes leading to serious conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
It’s also normal for slight memory loss and confusion to occur when you’re older that is not considered a symptom of a cognitive disease. The Mediterranean diet could help you stay intellectually spry as you age, so you can enjoy life to its fullest and potentially slow down the natural effects of aging.
7. Lower Risk of Cancer
On top of all the other serious conditions and diseases that the Mediterranean diet can help lower the risk of, it’s also been linked to reducing the risk of developing and dying from certain cancers. Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is a main component of the diet, which is one of the reasons it may lower your risk of cancer—many fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants.
Antioxidants are known to be anti-carcinogens. The nuts and oils prevalent in the Mediterranean diet also play a role in reducing inflammation and insulin, which could be a deterrent for development of some types of cancer.
8. Reduced Preservatives and Chemicals
The Mediterranean diet is full of fresh produce—vegetables, fruit, meat directly from the butcher and fish right from the ocean. This ensures you aren’t eating pre-made and processed foods that usually contain a lot of chemicals and preservatives that just aren’t good for anyone.
If you look at something as common as a box of frozen chicken, the ingredient list is usually several lines long—you aren’t just eating chicken. Pre-made foods put a lot of potentially harmful ingredients into your system, as well as extra sodium, fat, sugar and calories. By following the Mediterranean-style diet, you’ll avoid these ingredients that can be harmful to your health.
9. Increased Antioxidant Consumption
Antioxidants are all the craze right now. List after list of superfoods contain items that are high in antioxidants. They’ve been linked to reducing the risk of certain cancers but the benefits don’t stop there—they have natural anti-inflammatory properties, and may help prevent heart disease, lower the risk of developing diabetes, give the immune system a boost, and have anti-aging effects.
Healthy Foods High in Antioxidants
- Dark Chocolate.
- Goji Berries.
That’s a big list of potential benefits, and all you have to do is eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Try different kinds and things you’ve never had before. There’s no reason you can’t explore new foods!
10. Reduced Chance of Parkinson’s Disease
There’s some controversy about whether or not a Mediterranean-style diet could reduce your chance of developing Parkinson’s disease, but there are enough scientists out that believe there is a connection that it’s worth considering.