When it comes to the Mediterranean Diet, the word “diet” is a bit misleading. Usually, diets are created by nutritional and fitness experts to help people achieve optimal health and lose weight. But unlike these stereotypical diets, the Mediterranean Diet was never created by anyone.
Instead, it’s been a way of life for people living in Spain, Greece, Italy, and France for centuries.
A diet with that sort of staying power certainly has something to teach us, and in this article, we’ll share why you might want to introduce it into your current lifestyle choices.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet developed over hundreds of years, based on the local foods available to the cultures bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a high-fiber diet, with high-quality fats and proteins.
Foods like olive oils, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, unrefined cereals, and a moderate consumption of certain dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, as well as wine, all have their place in this special diet.
While Italy, Spain, and Greece are the most popular countries we think of for the Mediterranean Diet, Morocco, Portugal, Croatia, and Cyprus also belong in this category.
Sadly, with the influx of more and more processed foods, not everyone who lives in these countries eats a traditional Mediterranean Diet. For example, many of these Europeans consume plenty of sugars, processed grains and red meats, which were not originally available for this humble seaside fare.
The Mediterranean Diet Offers Long Life
Even if many modern-day Mediterraneans have started to fill their diets with processed, sugary foods, it’s worth noting that two of the world’s seven Blue Zones follow a Mediterranean Diet.
What are the Blue Zones? They are specific geographical locations, in which inhabitants live long, healthy lives. To be more specific, Blue Zones have more centenarians than any other place in the world!
Sardinian, Italy and Ikaria, Greece are two such Blue Zones, and they naturally live according to the Mediterranean Diet.
Why You Would Want to Try the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet allows you to return to a simpler and humbler fare, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be at any culinary disadvantage! Do you like the sound of local seafood, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh herbs, all served with seasonal, just-picked produce?
This is how Mediterraneans eat. And this is how you can indulge in the abundance of Mother Nature, too.
Foods Included on the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet allows for a wide range of foods, but you shouldn’t eat them all in the same amount. Some foods should be eaten with abandon. Others should be enjoyed more sparingly. Let’s have a closer look.
And remember that this list only contains only some of the wonderful foods allowed within the Mediterranean Diet!
Foods You Can Eat the Most of:
- Vegetables, especially vegetables that are available in the Mediterranean countries: eggplants, peppers, zucchini, lettuces, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kale, cabbages), greens (arugula, dandelion greens, chicory, collard greens, mustard greens, nettles), mushrooms, fennel, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, and carrots.
- Fruit, especially fruits found in the Mediterranean countries: citrus (oranges, clementines, grapefruits, tangerines), cherries, dates, strawberries, figs, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears, pomegranates, pears, tomatoes, and olives.
- Whole grains and bread made from them. Whole grains contain the whole grain kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm), and include whole wheat, bulgur, oatmeal, cornmeal, and brown rice.
- Seeds: Sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
- Nuts: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, Macadamia nuts, and cashews.
- Legumes: Garbanzo beans, cannellini beans, lentils, and peas.
- Spices and Herbs: rosemary, thyme, basil, fennel, sage, bay leaves, oregano, mint, cinnamon, nutmeg, and parsley.
- Seafood: octopus, prawns, shrimp, calamari, mussels, oysters, and clams.
- Fish: Seabass, salmon, tuna, cod, trout, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, and swordfish.
- Extra virgin olive oil
Foods You Can Eat in Moderation
- Poultry and eggs
- Dairy products, like cheese and yogurt
Foods You Can Eat on a Special Occasion
- Red meats
As you can probably guess, the Mediterranean Diet in Italy will probably differ from the one you would find in Spain, due to cultural differences and food availability. However, the list above should give you a good idea of the foods and meals you can enjoy.
Forbidden Foods on the Mediterranean Diet
As you can see, the Mediterranean diet won’t leave you hungry! There are many different foods you can enjoy. But there are also some that you should strictly avoid.
Let’s take a look:
Avoid Sugars, like
- Added sugars (white table sugar, honey, corn syrup, rice syrup, etc.)
- Sugary drinks, like soda and juices
Avoid Processed Foods, like
- Meats: processed sausages and hot dogs, deli and/or pressed meats, as well as smoked, cured or salted meats. These foods, unless they’re made by artisanal butchers, will be full of chemicals, preservatives, and additives, which have no place in the Mediterranean Diet.
- Refined grains are grains that have been milled, and therefore no longer have the bran and germ. Some refined grain products would be cornmeal, white bread, white rice and yes, even pasta.
- Refined oils, like canola, vegetable, soy, corn, cottonseed, and safflower oil. Avoid hydrogenated oils, like margarine or buttery spreads. These oils are actually banned in some European countries, so you can imagine that they do not belong in the Mediterranean diet!
Health Benefits from the Mediterranean Diet
Apart from helping Italians and Greeks reach their one-hundredth birthday in good health, the Mediterranean Diet has many other great things going for it. Let’s review some of them here:
Can Help Prevent Dementia
Alzheimer’s is a terrible illness, sweeping throughout the United States. The Mediterranean Diet, however, may help to slow or prevent the onset of this neurological disease.
According to author and researcher, Claire McEvoy, from the University of California’s San Francisco School of Medicine, “Eating a healthy plant-based diet is associated with better cognitive function and around 30 to 35 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment during aging.”
Therefore, it can help to reduce the risk of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Reduce the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease
The frequent use of extra virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet has been said to help reduce heart problems. That’s because it’s anti-inflammatory and full of monounsaturated fatty acids, like oleic acid, as well as omega- 3 fatty acids. It’s a heart-healthy fat, and consuming 2 – 4 tablespoons per day can be a good way to support your heart health like a true Mediterranean.
Furthermore, olive oil, compared to sunflower oil, can also help to lower blood pressure levels.
Can Help to Fight Cancer
The European Journal of Cancer Prevention had this to say about the humble, yet powerful, Mediterranean Diet:
“The biological mechanisms for cancer prevention associated with the Mediterranean diet have been related to the favorable effect of a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and high amounts of fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols found in fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and wine.”
Therefore, it seems that this diet, when followed correctly, gives your body just the right proportion of cancer-fighting nutrients. That alone is reason enough to try the Mediterranean Diet, right?
Healthy, Stable Weight
This diet is very low on added sugars and processed foods (like processed meats, grains, and dairy), and encourages high amounts of fiber via fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. This can help you stay satiated and satisfied while also cutting back on excessive, empty calories. This, in turn, leads to effortless weight loss.
Another reason why it’s a great weight loss solution is that there is no calorie counting. You simply get to eat certain foods in abundance, while limiting other foods. But these limitations will never leave you feeling deprived!
Helps to Prevent or Manage Diabetic Conditions
Because the Mediterranean Diet eliminates all added and processed sugars and grains, it also helps to keep insulin levels from getting out of control. In fact, Dr. Axe says that it’s a “natural diabetes cure.”
Health Risks Associated with the Mediterranean Diet
It’s hard to imagine anything negative about this diet. It’s brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables and cuts out red meat, sugars, and processed foods. And the truth is, there are very few risks involved with living this lifestyle.
But there can be a downside to even this Mediterranean feast. Let’s consider some of these negatives below:
Gluten and/or Grain Intolerance
Unfortunately, allergies and intolerance to both gluten and grains are on the rise, not only in the United States but in European countries, too.
For people suffering from these food issues, it’s difficult to follow the Mediterranean Diet because one whole grain is meant to be a daily, dietary staple. By eliminating gluten-containing grains, or grains altogether, you miss out on a significant piece of the Mediterranean Diet.
Ignoring Exercise and Lifestyle Choices
Although the Mediterranean Diet is replete with cancer-, Alzheimer’s-, and diabetes-preventing foods, you can’t rely on that alone for good health. Dr. Liz Weinandy, a dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that “the entire Mediterranean lifestyle is important. In general, that lifestyle is more active and has strong social and spiritual bonds.”
Therefore, this diet can greatly support health and wellness, but it must work in conjunction with other factors like social engagement and fitness activities.
Difficult if You Don’t Live on the Mediterranean Cost?
Even in Italy, it can be difficult to follow the Mediterranean Diet if you don’t live along the coast. That’s because fresh fish is harder to come by, and cured meats and red meat are more abundant.
Therefore, it’s easy to imagine that in certain areas of the United States, it can also be difficult to find all the fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood necessary to follow this lifestyle. Similarly, it can be tricky locating whole grains, as opposed to the more commonly sold refined cereals and grains.
The limited availability of some of these main food groups can pose a challenge to those who live far from coastal areas.
Are Nutrient Deficiencies Possible?
According to this study, as long as the traditional Mediterranean Diet is followed, you will always have adequate amounts of B vitamins, such as B1, B2, niacin, B6, folate, and B12. Additionally, you will also have plenty of vitamins E and C, and carotenes.
That’s because a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole-meal cereals, nuts, fish and virgin olive oil provide vitamins and minerals in plentitude.
It’s when you begin to introduce processed foods, low nutrient dense foods, and sugary foods, that you run the risk of being nutrient deficient, especially in folates, vitamins A and D.
Mediterranean Diet Cookbooks to Get You Started
If you’re ready to introduce the Mediterranean Diet into your life but aren’t quite sure how, consider some of these top cookbooks to show you the way:
- The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day: These recipes were developed by America’s Test Kitchen to ensure that everyone on this side of the world could enjoy the delights of the Mediterranean fare, too.
- The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health: This fun book takes you on a trip throughout the Mediterranean regions, giving you a taste of many different cuisines along the way.
- The Mediterranean Table: Simple Recipes for Healthy Living on the Mediterranean Diet: 150 simple, easy-to-prepare recipes will help you transition to this healthier way of eating even if you’re not a good cook!
The Mediterranean Diet may have begun centuries ago, as a simple and humble lifestyle for those living along the seacoast, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tap into its powerful benefits, too.
Just remember to combine a healthy diet with an active, social lifestyle to obtain balanced wellness and happiness.