Let me preface with my usual cautionary note on diets: there is no magic bullet, and no diet is perfect. Weight loss and healthy eating is unique to every individual, and your perfect program will not look like anyone else’s. But you can take away knowledge and perspective from others. It is my recommendation in any diet that you understand the logic behind the prescription, so you can add tools to your health-focused tool belt. This puts your mind’s focus on what you can do, instead of hyper-focusing on what you cannot, which inevitably leads to abandoning the diet and gaining back any lost weight and then some (oof).
Understanding the tools of the diet also prevents all-or-nothing mentality. If your intention in following the diet is to start on a path of healthier eating rather than follow a prescription for perfection, you may find that on days when you want to stray from the formula, you have an easier time going back to the healthier mindset. The fun thing about the Mediterranean diet, however, is that it has these advantages built in. Rather than being a diet focused on calorie reduction, the focus is on teaching people how to make healthier food choices and portions.
Mediterranean: An Overview
From a health perspective as well as a sustainability perspective, we here at Illustrated Nutrition stand behind the Mediterranean diet, as do many major publications across the country. As an example, U.S. News & World ranked the Mediterranean diet at the top of its 40 Best Diets Overall list, saying, “The diet may offer a host of health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control.” Say what? Let’s read more.
We like that the Mediterranean diet gives lots of room for personal adaptation, which is a factor that also makes the diet highly sustainable. As an eating pattern, the diet focuses on education rather than prescription, teaching its followers the building blocks to a healthy plate: lots of vegetables, some fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds, and fish, with a liberal use of olive oil, moderate dairy, and low red meat. This way of eating is common in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea like Spain, Italy, and Greece, hence the very catchy name.
Another attribute of the diet is the avoidance of processed foods that are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats (like Twinkies, cookies, pancakes, white rice, you know, all the tasty things). Understanding what kinds of foods fit in this category make this diet fabulous education for anyone looking to lose weight or reduce the risk of heart disease, on or off a diet. Your mind and body will thank you for making a movement towards more natural, whole ingredients (maybe not in the short-term—cravings are real—but definitely in the long-term!)
There are some more unique characteristics of the Mediterranean diet that we also love. Followers emphasize being physically active and keeping moderation in mind (something we touch on more here), which can be typical for diets. But the Mediterranean diet also focuses on enjoying food and drink with loved ones, making eating an experience instead of a mindless activity. This puts the focus on food preparation as an art and not just an obligation. It also allows you to be more present with your body and mind when eating, as opposed to eating like a zombie watching Netflix snacking on brains.
Overall, the diet can be summarized by this nifty graphic from Harvard University: about half your dinner plate should consist of vegetables or fruit, with a quarter of the plate loaded with healthy whole grains, and lastly fish and other animal proteins as the final quarter. Red meat is limited to a few times a month. Water is the regular drink of choice for a follower, with one glass of wine per day, and olive oil is used as a condiment. Lastly, along with the diet focus, dieters should incorporate daily physical activity.
Why We’re Going Mediterranean
Plain and simple: the research backs up the claims. In a study of about 26,000 women who followed this type of diet, there was 25% less risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the course of 12 years. The study was thorough in discovering any outside components that could account for this result, but it seems that changes in inflammation, blood sugar, and body mass index were the largest contributing factors, all of which are reasonably related to diet change.
An interesting characteristic of this diet, however, is that it does not require reduction of fats, but it does zero in on the types of fats consumed. In the PREDIMED study, a primary prevention trial including thousands of at-risk patients for diabetes and heart disease, researchers found that supplementing traditional fats (think butter and cream cheese) for olive oil or nuts reduced the rates of death from stroke by a whopping 30%. Not to mention the fact that risk of type 2 diabetes was also reduced in this trial. Not bad, Mediterranean. Not bad.
And the last finding we’ll highlight here is the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on aging gracefully. A Nurse’s Health Study following 10,670 women ages 57-61 observed the effect of dietary choices on aging. Healthy aging was defined as living more than 70 years with chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s, etc. This study discovered that the women who followed a Mediterranean-type eating pattern were 46% more likely to age healthfully! It would seem that more fruits and vegies along with healthy fats, proteins, and daily exercise really do make a difference.
One Word of Caution
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are ample, but that doesn’t necessarily mean following this diet will lead to weight loss. Regardless of what food you are eating, weight loss always boils down to calories in vs calories out. The advantage of this method of eating is the majority of your plate is covered in low-calorie items like vegetables and some fruits. Combine this with avoiding sugary sodas and juices (remember, water is the choice for followers) as well as stepping away from highly processed, sugary foods, and it’s very likely that weight loss will be a natural result. But remember, olive oil is a high caloric food, so if you’re not losing weight and you’re trying to, keep up with the healthy habits and take stock of your calorie intake for a few days to see where you’re at.
But as far as sustainability goes, the Mediterranean diet has climbed the charts as the most successful weight loss program to date. Because you eliminate those processed foods but keep highly satiating ingredients like healthy proteins and fats, subscribers to this method are able to maintain weight loss over a period of six years! This leaves the average diet with their turnover rate of 6 months or less totally in the dust. Goodbye, Atkins!
Overall, the suggestion from these sisters to you is to look at this diet focusing first on your own eating habits and use that information to gauge whether it would be sustainable to you. And if you determine it is, start out slow. Maybe introduce one or two meals a week, finding recipes you really love. Then build on that foundation. It’s a slower process, but maintaining weight loss is the most difficult when you jump too quickly into a completely new lifestyle.
Or, you could just move to Italy where the diet is standard. (I might need to give this a go.) Either way, eat hearty, friends!