Fresh Mediterranean salad on white plate.

What Do They Know That We Don't?

Potentially the world’s healthiest way of eating, the Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods that were consumed by populations in Italy and Greece throughout history.

The diet emphasizes produce, fish, whole grains, and health fats – encouraging a high intake of fiber, moderate consumption of meats and alcohol, and tons of antioxidants. Followers of this diet will also enjoy meals with their loved ones – cooking as a family, eating as a family, and sharing a glass of red wine after dinner as a family.

Eating plenty of fresh, non-starchy produce is key to the Mediterranean diet. You’ll want to shoot for at least five servings each day, with each serving being approximately one cup of raw produce. Healthy fats are also encouraged – coming from things like olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocado.

Legumes not only contain a ton of these necessary fats, but add a hefty boost of protein – and lean protein from non-meat sources is another cornerstone of this diet. To follow the Mediterranean diet as recommended, aim to eat a serving of legumes (a half-cup, cooked) at least twice a week, and a small handful of nuts every day.

Protein from fish and eggs is also encouraged – two to three times each week. Dairy protein, derived from milk products like yogurt and fresh cheeses, should be consumed daily. Try to get one to three servings of dairy, one cup of milk or yogurt or one ounce of cheese. Lean meats and poultry are welcome in the diet, but these are to be enjoyed in moderation.

Carbohydrates are included in this diet, as well. Refined carbs, however, are discouraged – as these will cause issues with your blood sugar. Aim for four small portions of whole grain carbs each day – whole-wheat bread, pasta made from quinoa, or sprouted or fermented grains. These should always be consumed with healthy fats and protein, to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption.

You should also enhance your meals with fresh herbs and spices, which are full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Drink plenty of water, but also coffee, tea, and even a glass of red wine each day.

Where did it come from?

This diet is a nutritional model based on the lifestyle of the people of the Mediterranean throughout their history – preserving their traditions and customs and encouraging things like seasonal eating, ethical choices, and even sustainable development. This area of the world is known by historians as “the cradle of society,” since it is within this region that the majority of ancient civilization took place.

As a diet, this model began increasing in popularity with Western societies after the 1950s. An American scientist, Ancel Keys, noticed that poor populations in the small towns of southern Italy were somehow healthier than most of New York’s wealthiest citizens. To determine how this was possible, Keys embarked on a study to determine the relationship between these populations to their diets – and the nutritional value of the foods the Mediterranean people were consuming.

In fact, this study inspired the first “Food Pyramid” released by the United States Department of Agriculture – a guideline developed to represent a fair and balanced way of eating.

However, the processed and refined alternatives to the natural foods consumed by Mediterranean populations changed the way the diet impacted Western eaters.

The more modern concept behind the Mediterranean diet recognizes the havoc these foods can wreak on our bodies, and encourages healthier, more natural options – similar to those that would have been used by the ancient Mediterranean civilizations.

What foods can I eat on this diet?

The bulk of your diet should include natural, unprocessed Mediterranean foods. This diet is very unrestrictive, and you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of delicious foods. You might even discover some new favorites!

You should shoot for a wide variety of foods, to ensure that you’re getting a balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Whole, single-ingredient foods are essential for making the most of your Mediterranean lifestyle.

Focus on eating:

Produce: eat plenty of tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, carrots, onions, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, apples, bananas, pears, berries, oranges, and melons.

Nuts and seeds: each day, eat a handful or more of almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds.

Legumes: this will be a major source of fiber and protein for followers of this diet. Try to eat more beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, and more.

Tubers: these starchy vegetables should be consumed in moderation, but are still an important part of this diet. Enjoy potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and yams.

- Whole grains: avoid refined carbohydrates, but eat small servings of things like whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, and whole grains.

- Fish and other seafood: at least twice a week, eat salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, clams, crab, oysters, or mussels.

Poultry: occasionally, enjoy chicken, duck, turkey, or other birds.

Eggs and dairy: cheese, yogurt, and eggs are a great source of healthy fats and protein.

Herbs and spices: accentuate your meals with garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper.

Heathy fats: this is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, so make sure you’re getting plenty of fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocado.

Also, you should be sure to drink plenty of water, as well as a moderate amount of red wine, coffee, and tea. Note that anyone with problems with alcohol consumption should avoid consuming wine, even though it is encouraged with this diet.

What foods should I avoid?

The main foods to stay away from to achieve the full benefits of the Mediterranean diet are foods with added sugars, foods that are heavily processed, and foods containing refined carbohydrates.

- Sodas, candies, ice cream, and anything else that lists sugar as an ingredient.

- Refined grains, including white bread and pasta made from refined wheat.

- Trans fats, which you can find in margarine and other processed foods.

- Refined oils, like canola oil, soybean oil, and more.

- Processed meat, like sausages and hot dogs.

- Highly processed foods, with labels like “low-fat” or “diet,” or anything that has a lengthy list of ingredients with chemical-sounding names.

You will need to learn to read ingredient lists to ensure that you avoid these unhealthy foods, but a good rule to follow is to stay away from things that look like they were made in a factory. Stick to natural, whole foods that actually look like foods.

What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?

Without having to limit your diet to any extremes, you can enjoy an improved quality of life and increased feelings of well-being thanks to this healthy, nutritious diet. You’ll notice a ton of great benefits once you start eating Mediterranean-style – especially affecting your heart health, brain health, and longevity. These are just some of the ways your body and mind will benefit from eating Mediterranean-diet approved foods.

One: The Mediterranean diet helps protect against type 2 diabetes.

Researchers compared the Mediterranean diet with several other healthy eating plans, including vegetarian, vegan, low-carbohydrate, high-fiber, high-protein, and low-glycemic index diets. In these studies, the Mediterranean diet actually revealed itself to be the more beneficial eating plan for diabetics or individuals with high blood sugar.

According to researchers, the emphasis on foods that are rich in monounsaturated fats and high in fiber like fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil is what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy – these have proven to lower blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetics. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats shows a positive effect on an individual’s insulin sensitivity.

Two: The Mediterranean diet maintains heart health.

Typically, the incidence of heart disease is considerably lower in Mediterranean countries than in the United States, which can partly be attributed to the dietary choices made by individuals living there. The other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle, including more physical activity and valued social supports are also important in keeping your body – and heart – healthy.

This diet has proven to reduce risks of cardiovascular mortality, primarily due to its positive impacts on “bad” cholesterol – the oxidized low-density lipoproteins that can accumulate in deposits in your arteries. Not only is it the food you’re eating on a Mediterranean diet that helps keep your cardiovascular system strong, it’s also what you’re drinking.

Red wine, which the plan encourages in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. However, limit consumption to no more than five ounces daily for women or men over the age of 65, or more than ten ounces daily for men under the age of 65.

Three: The Mediterranean diet keeps you agile as you age.

Thanks to all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you’ll be consuming in abundance on the Mediterranean diet, you’ll benefit from a reduced risk of developing muscle weakness or other indications of increasing frailty. In fact, seniors have shown this risk reduced by up to 70 per cent.

For anyone who plans to maintain an active lifestyle even into later adulthood, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins can be an important way to ensure lasting agility.

Four: The Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Many of the benefits offered by this kind of nutritional plan include improved cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and the overall health of your blood vessels themselves. Together, these benefits work to reduce your risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Research has shown that for seniors, the Mediterranean diet can help protect against cognitive decline – enabling aging adults to preserve their quality of life and limit the burdens of illness, both social and economic. Doctors have long been encouraging patients to adopt healthier eating habits in line with this diet as a possible strategy to address dementia and other cognitive conditions.

Five: The Mediterranean diet halves your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

With all of the healthy antioxidants you’ll get from eating a Mediterranean diet, you’ll be able to cut your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease almost in half. These antioxidants, which are found in the fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and seafood dishes encouraged by this eating plan, keep your cells from undergoing the process of oxidative stress, which causes high amounts of damage and can contribute to the development of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

Scientists are still researching the role of nutrition in neuroprotection and neurodegeneration, but so far, studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean diet provides many important benefits for people who show genetic susceptibility or who face environmental factors that will also contribute to these conditions.

Coming Soon: 10 More Reasons The Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Your Health

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About The Author

Jacky Miller's picture

Jacky Miller is a Registered Dietician based in New Zealand. She specializes in chronic conditions and through diet and lifestyle changes helps her patients improve their health, and lead richer, more fulfilling lives. She writes regularly on health related topics for blogs including MindBodyGreen, Jen Reviews, and The Huffington Post. 

Follow Jacky on Twitter and Facebook.


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