Imagine this — you’re on a sun-soaked terrace with your favorite company. Snacking on garlic and herb seasoned olives and some fresh fruit. Your aromatic meal is served: homemade grain pasta drizzled in olive oil, topped with basil, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh grilled fish. Dessert is creamy Greek yogurt with vibrant berries and mint. This Italian and Greek-inspired Mediterranean diet is not only satisfying and full of flavor, it’s also one of the world’s healthiest ways of eating.
The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of adults living in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy and Greece. Since the 1960s, it’s been observed that this eating pattern and lifestyle can help improve heart health and extend life expectancy (1). The Mediterranean diet doesn’t have one specific definition, but is rather based on healthy food principles that resemble the traditional cuisine. It’s typically characterized by eating lots of plants and plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, potatoes, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Dairy, poultry, and eggs are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and red meat is consumed in low amounts. Wine is allowed in moderations and enjoyed with meals. Fruit is also a common dessert option (1). The Mediterranean lifestyle is another factor that contributes to improved quality of life and well-being. Meals are shared with friends and family, increasing social connection, and promoting mindful eating.
Loading your plate with plant-based foods is not only good for the environment, it also significantly improves health. Plant-based eating is a cost-effective way to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases, high blood sugar, and high blood cholesterol (2). Foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and unprocessed cereals and grains contain lots of vitamins and minerals which promote optimal health. Plant-based eating also helps increase fiber intake. Dietary fiber can help you feel full for longer, prevent cardiovascular diseases, and aid in weight loss or maintenance (2).
Aim for about seven to ten servings of fruits and vegetables per day. When you choose grains, go for whole grains (whole grain pasta, brown rice, whole grain bread) versus refined types (white bread, white pasta, white rice) since whole grain products are filled with dietary fibers as well as minerals and vitamins.
Too much red meat in one’s diet, especially processed meat, has been shown to reduce heart health and increase the risk of chronic disease (3). Processed meats such as deli meat, hot dogs, sausages, and salami also contain preservatives and additives such as nitrites that can have a negative health impact (4). For optimal health, reduce the amount of red and processed meat in your diet. When you do eat meat, aim to keep the portions small.
The American Heart Association recommends replacing foods high in saturated fats (full-fat dairy, meat, cakes, biscuits, pastries) with foods high in monounsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (salmon, mackerel, herring, walnuts, flax seeds, sunflower seeds) (5). Oily fish, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain omega-3 healthy fats which can boost heart health, can decrease inflammation, and possibly even improve mood. Having more of these healthy fats has been shown to help benefit heart health by decreasing “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and increasing “good” cholesterol (HDL). Try using olive oil instead of butter when cooking. For snacks, try eating natural nuts or seeds instead of packaged sweets. Aim to include fish in your diet at least twice per week.
The Mediterranean diet encourages less dairy, except in the form of yogurt and less processed cheese. Less processed types of cheese include feta, Parmesan, and ricotta. These fermented dairy products contain healthy strains of bacteria called Lactobacillus and Streptococcus. These have been shown to boost gastrointestinal (tummy) health. A healthy intestine microbiota might also help improve immunity. Choose plain yogurt, without added sugar, and naturally sweeten it with fresh fruit. Choose less preserved types of cheese and aim to have them in moderation.
Drinking alcohol in moderation, in the form of wine and consumed during meals, has been shown to possibly have some health benefits. Red wine contains an antioxidant called resveratrol which has been shown to increase “good” cholesterol (HDL) (6). Although, consuming alcohol increase the risk of other health issues like high blood pressure, inflammation, and some types of cancer. Therefore it is better to limit alcohol consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans caution against drinking too much. They recommend up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men (7).
If you drink, enjoy a glass of wine (preferably red) with dinner once and a while. If you don’t drink, there is no need to start just for health purposes. Water is always the best option.
The Mediterranean lifestyle also includes regular physical activity. Regular fitness is one of the most important things you can do for your overall well-being. It can help with brain health, weight management, disease prevention, and strengthen bones and muscles. Regular physical exercise can also improve your sleep. Tracking your workouts, such as on a wellness app, is one of the best ways to increase your activity.
The Mediterranean diet is a nourishing and healthy way of eating which includes lots of minimally processed plant foods, fish, and less meat and dairy. The Mediterranean lifestyle emphasizes the joys of life and living, including eating with others and having a drink on occasion. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be focused on one particular food or diet. It’s all about balancing natural, simple, nutrient-rich, primarily plant-based foods, and adapting it to what’s available in your region.
Ready to dive into the Mediterranean way of eating? Check out these easy and delicious recipes, influenced by the Mediterranean diet:
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