If you knew that a certain diet was associated with good health and longevity, wouldn’t you want to follow it?
The Mediterranean Diet was once again named the best overall diet in a 2023 US News and World Report. A panel of experts in nutrition, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and food psychology rated 38 diets across various criteria. The Mediterranean Diet also ranked #1 as the best diet for bone and joint health, best family-friendly diet, best diet for healthy eating, and best plant-based diets.
Why is this diet so healthy? Above all, it is primarily based on whole, unprocessed foods. These foods come directly from the plant or animal. Processed and sugary foods are only eaten as an occasional treat.
The Mediterranean Diet is a template, not a specific meal plan. The Mediterranean region includes many countries, including Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, France, Portugal, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel. Each country has a different eating culture, but the templates are similar. And in fact, the Mediterranean Diet is a way of life, including lifestyle habits that are just as beneficial as what is being eaten.
Eat in abundance every day
- Vegetables and fruits. A wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits make up a large portion of every meal. These are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
- Olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean Diet, high in healthy monounsaturated fat and high in disease-fighting antioxidants.
- Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds contain healthy oils, fiber and protein. Eating them raw preserves the more-fragile polyunsaturated oils in them.
- Whole grains. Whole grains are intact with all three parts of the grain – the endosperm, the bran and the germ. Processed grains (flours) contain only the endosperm. The bran and germ increase the nutrient value with fiber, Vitamin E, B-vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Common whole grains include oats, brown or black rice, wild rice, buckwheat, wheat berries, barley, quinoa, corn and bulger, but there are many others. Some of these contain gluten, and should be avoided by people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
- Legumes: Beans and lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein and they are full of fiber. They are also a good source of minerals, B-vitamins and antioxidants. It is recommended to soak beans overnight (then throw away the soaking water) to break down plant chemicals and make them more digestible. Soy and peanuts are both legumes. These are common sensitivities, and you should avoid them if you react to them.
- Herbs and Spices: Besides making your food taste fantastic, herbs and spices are nutritional powerhouses with big health benefits. Different ones have different benefits, being antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-microbial, and anti-diabetic. Some of the more well-known herbs and spices are cinnamon, ginger, garlic, turmeric, mint, cayenne pepper, oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme.
Eat often – at least twice per week
- Fish and seafood: Seafood is a protein staple in the Mediterranean Diet. It is an excellent source of essential anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids. These are particularly important for pregnant women and developing children as they are crucial for normal brain development and proper brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids are also critical for normal immune function. Seafood also contains iodine and Vitamin D, both of which are typically low in the average person’s diet. Be careful to choose seafood varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, scallops, shrimp, pollock, herring, oysters and trout.
Eat in moderation – once daily to weekly
- Poultry: An excellent protein source, moderate consumption of poultry is part of the Mediterranean diet. Poultry is higher in essential inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids, which is why it is recommended less often than seafood.
- Eggs: An excellent protein source, eggs pack a nutritional punch. Eggs are high in many vitamins and minerals. They are also high in choline, an important nutrient for building cell membranes.
- Cheese and yogurt: Common dairy products in the Mediterranean Diet include cheeses and plain Greek yogurt. Goat and sheep milk products are also just as common as cow. Examples include parmesan, feta, ricotta and goat cheese. These are good sources of protein, Vitamin B12 and calcium.
Eat less often
- Other meats: Beef, lamb and pork are eaten less often.
- Sweets and refined grains: These are eaten only as occasional treats.
What to drink?
Water is the number-one drink on the Mediterranean Diet. Simple. The sugary and hyped flavored waters and sodas that we are accustomed to seeing in our stores are not a part of the Mediterranean Diet. Red wine is consumed regularly, but in moderation.
Lifestyle Factors of the Mediterranean Diet
It’s important to note that lifestyle factors are as important with the Mediterranean Diet as the food. Time is dedicated to cooking meals and enjoying those meals with family and friends. This healthy practice leads to eating in a more relaxed state and satisfies our need to be socially connected. Slowing down also helps us pay attention to when we’re full.
The Mediterranean culture also includes more daily activity. Walking is a common form of transportation. Exercise and movement are part of daily life, but this doesn’t mean high intensity workouts at the gym every day. Three hours of moderate intensity enjoyable exercise, spread across the week, is adequate.