With all the attention on it lately, the Mediterranean diet may seem like the newest diet du jour, but the Mediterranean diet has probably been around since the Middle Ages. Though “diet” is part of the name, the focus isn’t on weight loss at all — it’s a lifestyle. This way of eating focuses on overall health and well-being — and there’s good science behind it.
WHAT IS IT?
The traditional Mediterranean diet is nutritionally sound, rich in antioxidants, heart-healthy fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s the traditional diet of the Mediterranean regions from Greece to southern France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, as well as lesser-acknowledged countries like Lebanon and Tunisia.
It emphasizes abundant fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Eggs, dairy foods, fish and poultry are enjoyed in moderation and red meat and sweets are reserved for special occasions. One of the most popular components of the diet is the moderate wine intake and regular physical activity. There are no set calorie restrictions.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with several health benefits including a boost to heart and brain health, diabetes prevention and control and lower rates of certain cancers. It’s also associated with longevity.
The evidence supporting the Mediterranean diet and its benefits to heart health is solid – particularly for those with a higher socioeconomic status. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the Mediterranean diet might be especially beneficial to people already at high risk for heart disease citing up to a 30% reduction in stroke, heart attack and death.
The good news is you don’t have to actually live in the Mediterranean region to benefit. One study found that people living outside the region who followed a traditional Mediterranean diet were less likely to die from or experience heart disease. Further, the landmark PREDIMED study revealed the Mediterranean diet is also associated with a lower risk for metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and diabetes.
BRAIN HEALTH AND BEYOND
Like other things that positively affect the heart, the Mediterranean diet may also have a positive impact on brain health. It’s associated with better cognitive function particularly in older adults and may even improve depression, particularly when supplemented with fish oil. And if a boost to the heart and brain aren’t enough, this diet may also help fight certain cancers like colorectal and breast cancer. Even when high-fat foods like olive oil or nuts were included in some of the trials, that didn’t result in weight gain.
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This well-researched way of eating has a lot of benefits — and, thankfully, it’s easy to follow. The traditional Mediterranean diet is a sustainable way to eat for overall health and well-being, and isn’t restrictive like many modern diets. Part of its success is linked to the fact that it’s a lifestyle to be adopted for the long haul.
The key to success is making it work for you. While it would be fantastic to travel to the beautiful Mediterranean to enjoy the food and wash your worries away at sea, there are ways to make this diet work wherever you are. Enjoy fruits and vegetables throughout the day at breakfast, lunch, dinner and as snacks. Be adventurous and try sardines. Drizzle olive oil on salads or roasted vegetables instead of using saturated fats. Snack on a handful of walnuts or almonds instead of chips and try a pesto instead of cream sauce. You can even add a glass of wine to dinner if you choose.