The Mediterranean diet is more than just a diet but an entire lifestyle. Food is the backbone of this healthy eating approach, but it goes much further than this. The best way to look at it is more than just a diet but as an approach to overall health.
With all the different diets and healthy lifestyle approaches out there, does one stand out against them all?
People have eaten this way for centuries, and returning to this simple way of existence can provide you with some tremendous health benefits. It’s continuously been referred to as the best diet out there – including in 2019.
This article will look at what the Mediterranean diet really is, which foods to include, the health benefits that come from it, and how to put it all together into a diet plan.
The problem when using the word diet is that it implies restriction. A Mediterranean Diet is far from restrictive, and that’s why it needs to be considered a healthy eating lifestyle. The idea is not geared around taking away but adding to your life.
When healthier items are added into the diet, they can push away all the junk and garbage. There’s just no room for them anymore.
This way of eating has emerged from the Mediterranean region where there has always been a focus on real whole foods. With this eating approach, there is a big emphasis on plants, fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and real grains. There is also some red wine here and there.
Most people think of Greece or Italy when they think of the Mediterranean diet, and those are the right places to start. What makes this diet so beneficial is the focus on the cleanest ingredients. (1)
In this diet, you won’t find trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. Dishes are prepared with love, and quality is of the utmost importance.
Overall lifestyle is also what makes this approach so beneficial. Pioppi, a town in Italy, has been studied for years to see what makes this lifestyle so healthy. The average person there lives to 90, so they’re doing something right. What they have observed is how these people live in a truly healthy environment.
People there are exposed to sunlight and fresh air. They get exercise by choosing to walk, or bike most places they go to. There is less chronic stress, and meals are relaxing experiences to be with friends and family.
The food, however, is still essential, and this whole approach can help many people.
One of the first significant benefits of this lifestyle is its ability to decrease the chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Research from the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Naples found how effective it was for this. (2)
It looked at five extensive prospective studies that all showed how it could substantially lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in healthy people.
Heart health is another significant benefit that comes from eating this way. Since there is a big focus on plants, the Mediterranean diet can provide a lot of satiation while providing fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Eating this way can reduce cravings for starchy carbs and refined sugars. With the emphasis on fish, and nuts and seeds, you get a lot of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These type of fatty acids can help lower cholesterol and combat heart disease. (3)
The Department of Preventative Medicine and Public Health in Spain conducted a four-year study to look at this.
They observed 7500 people, and those following a Mediterranean diet had significantly lower diastolic blood pressure than the control groups. Even though this diet may have a higher fat content than others, it’s coming from healthier fats. (5)
Extra-virgin olive oil and raw nuts promoted the lower levels of diastolic blood pressure. This makes the Mediterranean diet one of the best heart-healthy eating approaches out there.
This way of eating is also extremely beneficial for cognitive function. (6)
Again, because of its inclusion of healthy fats, and omega 3s, the diet can improve this. They have conducted a massive amount of studies to observe this.
Over three to eighteen years, twelve studies have followed over 1, 574, 000 people. They found a 13% lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease when choosing to eat this way.(7)
The main thing to point out is how choosing to follow a Mediterranean diet provides significant health improvements. There is also a plentiful reduction in overall mortality, including mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease. (8) (9)
It’s clear that this way of eating is superior to other “diets,” but which foods should you choose? Here is a quick summary of the best choices in each category.
- Free-range chicken
- Grass-fed beef
- Shellfish (oysters, mussels, crab)
- Sea bass
Nuts, beans, legumes & seeds:
- White beans
- Green beans
- Fava beans
- Yellow split pea
- Flax seed
- Sunflower seeds
- Pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
Grains: (should be whole grains, minimally processed & organic)
Oils, herbs & spices:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Avocado oil
- Bay leaves
- Pul Biber
There are so many options with all of those great ingredients that there are endless amounts of possibilities. What makes the Mediterranean diet stand out is you’re not eating packaged things that have ingredients – these foods are the ingredients. When putting this all together, here is what a simple daily menu can look like:
Natural, unflavored Greek yogurt topped with blueberries, almonds, and ground flax seed.
Handful of almonds and a green apple.
Tuna on a bed of greens with diced cucumber, red pepper, and tomatoes. Served with a homemade vinaigrette made of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Small bowl of olives or homemade granola made of oats, sesame seeds, dried fruit, cinnamon, honey, almonds, fennel seeds.
Salmon with rainbow veggies.
Looking at the sample diet menu, here are a few of the related recipes to get you started:
- 3 cups organic rolled oats
- ¼ cup extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil
- 2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
- 2 tbsp. fennel seeds
- 100 g almonds
- 100 g pumpkin seeds
- 200 g raisins
- 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp. honey
- ½ cup chia seeds
- ½ cup sunflower seeds
- Preheat oven to 180C
- Mix all ingredients together in a container until well covered with the honey and oil
- Spread mixture over a baking sheet and place in the oven
- Cook for around 30 minutes stirring halfway in between
- Remove from stove and let cool before putting in airtight containers
Sheet pan salmon w/ rainbow veggies
- 1 medium yellow squash cut into chunks
- 2.5 cups bite-sized broccoli florets
- ½ medium red onion diced into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp. honey
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 3 (5-6oz) salmon fillets
- 1 cup grape tomatoes
- Preheat stove to 400 degrees, place a baking sheet with parchment, place squash in the top third of the sheet, broccoli in the middle third, and the red onion on the lower third
- Sprinkle with olive oil and salt and pepper and roast for 8 minutes in preheated oven
- Mix mustard, honey, 1 tbsp. oil, 1 minced garlic clove, and lemon juice in a bowl and set aside
- Remove baking sheet from oven and clear some room for the salmon and tomatoes. Brush each side of salmon with honey mustard mixture and season with salt and pepper
- Drizzle tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle remaining 2 cloves of garlic over the vegetables
- Return to stove and cook until salmon is cooked through and vegetables are soft (around 12-15 minutes)
- Serve right away with lemon wedges to spritz onto salmon
As mentioned before, the Mediterranean diet goes beyond just the food choices. It’s an overall lifestyle where all aspects of health need to be considered. There will be errors here and there, but the focus should be on eating this way 80% of the time.
After a while, there will be a newfound appreciation for real whole foods. This helps push away the junk as the taste buds learn to appreciate whole food.
The best approach each day and week is the following:
- Double-digit servings each day of non-starchy vegetables
- 1-2 servings of fruit with each meal
- 1-2 servings of olives, nuts, and seeds with each meal
- Extra virgin olive oil with every meal
- At least 2-3 fish servings per week
- Legumes at least 2-4 servings per week
- Red meat – no more than 2 servings per week
- No more than two dessert servings per week
- 1 glass of red wine per day
A big focus of the Mediterranean diet is not rushing meals and enjoying them. Most people eat meals too fast and finish within 3 to 5 minutes. This can have negative impact on your digestive system and causes meals to be stressful events.
Meals should take at least 15 to 20 minutes to finish – but ideally longer. This will help to avoid overeating, promote better digestion, and keep meals stress free.
A fabulous way to start the day is with a large glass or two of water with fresh lemon. The body has spent the last 7 to 8 hours dehydrated and needs hydration. Fresh lemon is also good for the metabolism, cleanses the body, and helps promote digestion.
For overall water intake, drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day to be adequately hydrated.
When buying foods, look for the cleanest sources possible. Try to get organic produce grown locally. For proteins, look for farm-raised and pastured animals. Try to find local farmers markets or butchers to get real grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Look for wild-caught salmon and chicken that is free-range and not full of hormones and antibiotics.
If possible, try to grow some of these items in your own backyard. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, and all herbs are simple to grow and only cost pennies to do so. Another right approach is to prepare meals for the coming week.
This way, meals will be ready to go and only need heating up. Pre-preparing meals help avoid trips to fast-food restaurants or choosing inferior meals. You can batch cook a bunch of salmon, veggies, and sweet potatoes, so meals just have to be assembled.
The people of Pioppi, Italy didn’t belong to gyms or health clubs, but they were always active. If you have a workout routine, definitely stay with it, but everyone needs to be as active as possible. Spending more time on your feet is better for optimal health.
Try not to go over two hours without getting up and moving around. Take the stairs instead of elevators and park farther away from work to get more activity each day.
This Mediterranean diet pyramid is frequently updated by us to adapt to today’s modern lifestyle.
It contains quantitative and qualitative elements when it comes to choosing the proper diet food.
This helps the body follow the cycle of the day and promotes better sleep and recovery at night.
Getting as much fresh air as possible is paramount and outdoor walks or hikes, get you all these benefits.
People in Mediterranean countries tend to have a more laid back and relaxed lifestyle. Meals might not take place until much later at night, and there’s less sense of the stressful rat race. We can learn from these as modern, stressful lifestyles are sending people to an early grave.
Chronic long-term stress is responsible for much of the inflammation and disease afflicting people today. Many studies have investigated this, including a notable one from the European Journal of Public Health: It found that personal stress sharply increased the likelihood of the onset of depression, anxiety, cancer, and chronic disease. (14)
Eliminating processed foods – especially refined carbs and sugars – help to combat it. (16)
The Mediterranean diet is a perfect choice here as it’s free from those substances that cause damage.
Exercise is also of crucial importance, along with getting adequate sleep each night. Focusing on deep breathing or meditation if needed, is another excellent way to lower elevated stress hormones. Research from Harvard Medical School reveals how simple mindfulness meditation can ease anxiety and mental stress. (17)
Hopefully, you can see how the Mediterranean Diet is a “diet” in name only. It goes far beyond just dietary choices but encompasses an entire lifestyle. The food choices are still relevant, and it will be the best healthy eating approach you can take. When all the aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle are adopted, accurate health and wellness can begin.
The sooner this approach is adopted, the sooner you can take back your own health.