You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean Diet. But what is it, exactly? Well, that depends. Three continents border the Mediterranean Sea. So traditional Mediterranean meals feature foods grown all around the seacoast. Recipes vary from region to region depending on cultural preferences and availability of food. Oldways is an organization devoted to promoting this diet, along with other traditional cuisines. Its website explains that Mediterranean diet guidelines grew out of a study conducted shortly after World War II. Researchers found that in Crete, Greece and southern Italy, rates of chronic disease were unusually low, and adult life expectancy was high.
Many recent studies confirm these findings. Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of the South Beach diet, cites the PREDIMED study. In this study, people who followed a Mediterranean style diet lost more weight than those who followed a low fat regimen. They also had better blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol ratios, and lower levels of inflammation. This was still true after three years on the diet.
Oldways attributes these benefits to several factors. For one thing, the “diet” is not just a way of eating; it’s a way of life. Things like watching portion size, being physically active, and enjoying meals with other people are all essentials.
So what does “watching portion size” mean? I always thought it meant, “stop eating so much”. It turns out it means “stop eating so much of the wrong food.” Oldways recommends this “handy guide”: “Start with a serving of vegetables about the size of your open hand. Add fish, meat or beans about the size of your palm, then finish off your plate with a scoop of whole grains about the size of your fist.” One big difference between this plan and the typical American menu is that servings of meat are smaller in proportion to other foods. You can still pile your plate with delicious food—but the meat portion will take up less room.
The next essential is physical activity. Nothing new here. Every day we’re bombarded with reminders about our need for exercise. But I think most Americans see “exercise” as something we add to our daily activities. We head to the gym, we go for a run, we do a daily workout. I recently realized this may not be the case for many Europeans. We have friends in southern France whose daily routine includes walking to town to shop, do errands and chat with neighbors along the way. They do very little driving. Though many Americans feel pangs of nostalgia when they imagine living in such a quaint village, this is not where we live. Instead of finding everything we need on Main Street, most of us spend a lot of time driving to strip malls, which are conveniently located on four lane highways. We walk from parking lot to store, and that’s about it. So, we add “exercise” to our to-do list. Ah, for the good old days!
The third essential is my favorite: enjoying leisurely meals with other people. For me, food and fellowship go together. But some diets are just not conducive to fellowship. Any plan that requires making my own special food or microwaving a packaged entrée, feels like punishment after awhile. It’s a lot like being sent to the corner while everyone else gathers cheerfully around the dinner table. The Mediterranean diet makes it easy to prepare low calorie foods, even for company. And when eating out, guilt-free choices are almost always available. You don’t have to dine on a plate of raw celery while everyone else lingers over surf and turf. If you keep “portion size” in mind, you can participate in all the fun.
This is where the food pyramid comes in handy. The foods at the bottom of the pyramid may be eaten in larger amounts, while those at the top are consumed in smaller portions and less frequently. When I read this, I went right to the bottom of the pyramid to see what foods I could indulge in liberally. I was not surprised to find vegetables. I was surprised to find whole grains, fruit, olives, olive oil, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are all great sources of vitamins, minerals, energy, antioxidants and fiber. But I considered many of them no-no’s for dieting. While most weight loss programs encourage eating plenty of vegetables and some fruit, I don’t know any that allow large amounts of these other things. The South Beach Diet (Learn about this diet here) is the closest thing I’ve seen to this, but it sets strict limits on fruits and grains for the first two weeks, then allows them back in Phase 2 on a limited basis. Phase 3, maintenance level, looks a lot like the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, although South Beach seems to include more meat, dairy products and eggs.
Let’s take a closer look at the bottom tier of the pyramid. Vegetables: everyone and their mother tells us to eat lots of them. I was pleasantly surprised to read that cooking or drizzling them with olive oil not only brings out flavor but enhances their health benefits! And sprinkling roasted vegetables with fresh herbs and spices (another Mediterranean diet essential) adds flavor and aroma, as well as antioxidants. It also reduces the need for salt.
(If you’re starting to get hungry, check out these recipes.)
When it comes to fruit, whole fruit is recommended, rather than store-bought juice. Fiber in the pulp and skin slows sugar absorption and helps create the feeling of fullness. With peach season in full swing at Weaver’s, now is a great time to indulge in this aspect of the diet!
Grains are to be whole and minimally processed. Processing removes valuable nutrients and fiber. You’ve probably noticed foods made with refined flour and sugar fill you quickly, but spike carb cravings later. Dr. Agatston explains that “fiber is the major factor that slows the absorption of sugar.” Slower digestion of carbs means less release of insulin, which means a less dramatic drop in blood sugar and less hunger later. (The South Beach Diet, c. 2003 p. 64)
Olives, olive oil, nuts and avocados contain healthy fats. But many of us think of fat as the villain that sabotages our weight loss efforts and clogs our arteries. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan attributes this belief to the lipid hypothesis—the idea that dietary fat causes chronic disease. Acceptance of this theory triggered a campaign to embrace a low fat diet. According to Pollan, this not only “ruined an untold number of meals, but also has done little for our health, except very possibly to make it worse.” (Pollan, c. 2008, chapter 5.) Dr. Agatston, explains that fat is another thing that slows sugar absorption. It also makes foods tastier and more filling. Of course, some fats ARE bad for you, but most of those are found in processed foods.
Olives are eaten whole and used in cooking and flavoring. I used to think olives came in two colors: black and green. The green ones came with red pimentos stuffed inside. Both tasted a lot like the cans they were processed in. If you haven’t tried the di Bruno olives at Weaver’s yet, they will whet your appetite for true Mediterranean flavor. They’re superb for snacking or adding to salads and other dishes.
Finally, nuts, beans, legumes and seeds are also good sources of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. They add flavor and texture to Mediterranean dishes. Now, a little voice inside my head keeps nagging me, saying I can’t really stuff myself with cashews and olives and whole grain bread and still lose weight. But it’s comforting to know eating these things creates fullness, suppresses cravings and provides health benefits. I probably just need to keep tabs on my calorie intake so I don’t get carried away.
The next level of the pyramid recommends fish and seafood at least twice a week. Fish such as tuna, herring, sardines and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Mussels, clams and shrimp (not the battered, fried kind) have similar benefits. I have to admit I’m not a fish lover, but I could eat tuna or salmon—and definitely shrimp—twice a week.
Moving up to the next level, we find poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt. Moderate daily and weekly portions of these are recommended. Oldways points out that calcium in cheese and yogurt is important for bone and heart health, and suggests low and nonfat dairy products for anyone concerned about dairy fat. It also recommends eggs as a good source of high quality protein. (Just a thought—I have a feeling folks in the original study ate cheese that looked and tasted like the kinds in Weaver’s cheese case—and not like the reduced fat stuff displayed at the supermarket.)
At the top level, we find “meats and sweets”. This is the real difference between the Mediterranean and American style of eating. Though these things are not taboo, they are consumed in smaller quantities. Instead of eating a typical American nine ounce steak, followers of this diet consider meat more of a garnish—something to add flavor to the meal. And that giant piece of cheesecake? They’ll share it with three people.
Finally, what do people in these coastal countries drink? Lots of water, and a little wine to complement a leisurely dinner. (Sugary drinks are definitely out.) Oldways defines “moderate” wine consumption as one 5 ounce glass or less per day for women and two for men. It also advises getting advice from a doctor about consuming any alcohol. (If you’d like the benefits of red wine without the alcohol, you might look into resveratrol supplements.)
So what’s my conclusion about this diet? It is definitely different than what I’m used to. I have no problem filling up on fresh vegetables and fruits. I’m trying to eliminate refined sugar and flour from my diet and use olive oil instead of butter and cooking oils.
The studies about the healthfulness of the diet are compelling. But I’m clearly a carnivore too.
I choose high quality meats, such as Lone Star Farms beef available at Weaver’s. Many experts believe eating beef from well-nourished, grass-fed cattle is good for your health—but that’s another story.
I pretty much agree with the Mayo Clinic when it comes to choosing the best diet. “There are many different types of diets in existence. To promote effective weight loss, they should lower calorie intake. To promote good health, they should include a variety of healthy food choices.”
So the bottom line is: This is a great plan that includes delicious recipes and has many health benefits. If you can change your eating habits to conform to it, you won’t be sorry. Basically, you need to find the diet that works for you. It should be one you can stick with long term. It should include lots of healthy choices. And it should definitely not make you feel like you have to face the corner while everyone else gathers around for a feast.