Vegan, low carb, paleo, keto, grapefruit, South beach, Zone, the list goes on and on with the number of fad diets out there. This leads most of us to be confused about what we actually should be eating. What is the best diet to follow?
First and foremost, we all need to understand that there is no one diet out there that is best for everyone. Every person is unique and therefore each person’s diet will be unique for what works best for them. However, as a group of educated physicians the Mediterranean diet has a lot of potential health benefits that may be a good “one size fits all” approach to nutrition.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a popular diet known for its potential health benefits, particularly in reducing the risk of chronic diseases and promoting overall well-being. It is based on the traditional eating habits of people living in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.
Key Components of the Mediterranean Diet
In general, the Mediterranean diet may be a beneficial way of eating for most of the population as it focuses on consuming mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fish and lean proteins and consuming things like red meat, dairy, and red wine in moderation. Additionally, this way of eating promotes eating whole natural foods while avoiding processed foods, which are the foods that come in a box or found in the inner aisles of the grocery store.
Why It Works
While we can put a label on this type of eating as the Mediterranean diet, it really is simply a way of cleaner eating. Aiming to eat the foods that research has shown us that can help us live healthier lives and prevent disease. As physicians we tend to support this way of eating as it’s benefits include:
- Heart Health: Numerous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease. It is associated with lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, improved blood pressure control, and reduced inflammation.
- Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a lower risk of chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
- Weight Management: The Mediterranean diet is associated with weight loss and weight maintenance, making it a valuable tool in the prevention and management of obesity.
- Overall Well-Being: The diet's emphasis on fresh, whole foods, and a balanced intake of nutrients contributes to improved overall health and well-being.
The Mediterranean Diet Foods to Include
High Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the daily intake of a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, which are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which support overall health and well-being. Eating a wide selection of fruits and vegetables has numerous benefits which include:
- Dietary Fiber - They are excellent sources of dietary fiber, promoting digestive health, and providing a feeling of fullness, which can aid in weight management.
- Low in Calories - Most fruits and vegetables are low in calories but nutrient-dense, making them suitable for those looking to maintain or lose weight.
- Antioxidants - Many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that help combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
- Hydration - Fruits and vegetables with high water content, like cucumbers and tomatoes, contribute to hydration.
- Flavor and Variety - Fruits and vegetables add diverse flavors, textures, and colors to Mediterranean dishes, making meals more enjoyable and satisfying.
Whole grains like whole wheat, oats, barley, quinoa and brown rice are a staple in the Mediterranean diet, providing essential nutrients and dietary fiber. The benefits include:
- Nutrient-rich in dietary fiber, vitamins (e.g., B vitamins), minerals (e.g., magnesium, iron), and antioxidants.
- Higher levels of fiber content. Fiber supports digestive health, aids in weight management, and helps regulate blood sugar levels.
- Slow-release carbohydrates are complex and have a lower glycemic index, meaning they provide sustained energy and help prevent rapid spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Reduced risk of heart disease due to their ability to lower cholesterol levels and improve overall heart health.
- Weight management as the fiber in whole grains contributes to a feeling of fullness and can help control appetite, making it easier to manage weight.
- Digestive health as the fiber in whole grains supports regular bowel movements and a healthy gut microbiome.
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and stroke.
Olive oil is a primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. It contains monounsaturated fats, which are considered heart-healthy. Nuts and seeds are also included, providing additional healthy fats. The benefits include:
- Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil and nuts, have been linked to improved heart health. They can lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol while maintaining or even increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
- Certain seeds (like flaxseeds and chia seeds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are associated with reduced risk factors for heart disease.
- Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, contains antioxidants such as polyphenols and vitamin E, which help protect cells from oxidative damage.
- Healthy fats contribute to a feeling of fullness and satiety, reducing overall calorie intake and aiding in weight management.
- Fats are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and certain phytonutrients, enhancing the bioavailability of these nutrients.
- Healthy fats add richness, flavor, and palatability to meals, making them more enjoyable and satisfying.
Fish and Lean Protein
Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, is a frequent protein source. Lean poultry and legumes like beans and lentils are also part of the diet. Why they are beneficial to the body:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and numerous health benefits.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively studied and are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. They can lower blood pressure, reduce triglyceride levels, and improve overall cardiovascular health.
- DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, is essential for brain health and cognitive function. It is particularly important during fetal development and infancy.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects and may help alleviate symptoms in conditions characterized by chronic inflammation.
- Including fatty fish in the diet can promote a feeling of fullness and may aid in weight management.
- Fatty fish are not only a source of healthy fats but also provide high-quality protein, vitamins (such as vitamin D and vitamin B12), and minerals (like selenium).
Foods in Moderation
In addition to the foods the Mediterranean diet promotes there are certain foods it recommends enjoying, but in moderation. These include:
While yogurt, cheese and milk are certainly okay to include in your daily diet, it is recommended that they be consumed in moderation. This means that things like milk and cheese are added to dishes for flavor rather than being the star of the show.
The Mediterranean diet aims to place emphasis on vegetables and lean proteins and therefore encourages people to enjoy red meat, but in moderation. This means not consuming it everyday and enjoying small portions of red meat when you do indulge.
Red wine has been linked to heart health benefits when consumed in moderation, this means no more than 1-2 glasses per day with a meal. This is certainly not something you “need” in your diet, but if you would like to enjoy an alcoholic beverage a glass of red wine may be your best option.
Choosing the Mediterranean Diet
It's important to note that while the Mediterranean diet offers numerous health benefits, individual dietary needs may vary. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your diet, especially if you have specific health concerns.