Making the Switch to the Mediterranean Diet — Happily

Food is more than just fuel for your body. If you’ve grown up with a traditional Western diet, adopting the Mediterranean diet will be quite a change and will involve some key trade-offs:

You’ll eat less of this And more of this
Red meat Lean meats and seafood
Saturated fats Healthy fats
Processed foods Whole foods
Refined grains Whole grains

In addition, your serving sizes will change, as will the balance of food on your plate, with the protein and starch becoming sidekicks rather than the stars.

Of course, all these changes have very positive outcomes:

  • Reduced risk of some very serious health conditions and diseases.

  • An introduction (or reintroduction) to how delicious — and filling — simply prepared, whole foods can be.

  • An opportunity to maintain (or return) to a healthy body weight, without going to extraordinary lengths or having to do crazy things.

So, yes, switching to the Mediterranean diet will be a change, but it’ll be a good one.

Still, change can be difficult, especially when it involves dietary habits. Not only do you have the logistical things to deal with (meal planning and preparation, stocking your pantry with key staples, fitting the supplies into your current budget, and so on), but you also have the emotional stuff: enjoying mealtimes, being happy with yourself, and, if you’re a parent, feeling good about the example you’re setting for your children.

Going cold turkey

Maybe you’re someone who, after making a decision, embraces it completely and immediately. If so, making the switch from your current diet to the Mediterranean diet all at once may be right up your alley.

  • Advantages: Hey, with all the studies pointing out the health benefits of this diet, who wouldn’t benefit from making an immediate switch? Some health advantages — like lowered cholesterol — attributed to foods that are key components of the Mediterranean diet begin to show up in as little as two weeks!

  • Disadvantages: Going cold turkey is hard. First, if your current diet relies on a lot of processed and convenience foods or contains very few of the dietary staples found in the Mediterranean diet, you face quite a learning curve (exactly how do you prepare an artichoke?) and a palate that needs to be retrained. Second, after the initial wave of enthusiasm wanes, you may easily return to your former diet.

Making gradual changes

In this approach, you make small, gradual changes. Maybe you adopt a certain cooking technique (using olive oil rather than shortening, for example), make it a regular part of your routine, and then make another small change. Maybe you start by preparing one Mediterranean-inspired meal a week and gradually increase that number over a period of time.

However you integrate the changes, the key is to do so in a way you can live with and continue, and then to build on that success over time. The method takes longer, but before you know it, your “regular diet” will be the Mediterranean diet.

  • Advantages: Even small changes make a big differences for your health. Changing one thing is easier than changing everything. You can absorb the cost of the more expensive staples (olive oil, nuts, and seafood, for example) more easily when you buy only one or two at a time. You give yourself a learning curve that’s more forgiving.

  • Disadvantages: If you ask successful dieters how they find the willpower to choose an apple over a snickerdoodle, chances are the answer will be that they no longer keep snickerdoodles on hand. Your challenge will be committing to the small changes, even when other options are easily available.

Choosing an approach that’s right for you

Which strategy is best? Whichever one works for you. Ask yourself these questions to find the approach that gives you the greatest chance for long-term success:

  • Do you have — and adhere to — a grocery budget? A Mediterranean diet isn’t necessarily more expensive than a traditional Western diet, especially if you already budget for lean cuts of meat and fresh produce. But having to absorb the cost of a bunch of new and sometimes costly ingredients can be quite a hit if you have to stock up on the staples all at one time.

  • How busy is your schedule? Let’s face it. Cooking what you know — whatever that is — just takes less time than cooking something new, especially when that new dish also includes unfamiliar foods. If you have a hectic schedule, you may want to ramp up gradually rather than all at once. Eventually, you’ll be whipping up Mediterranean-inspired meals just as easily and efficiently as you whip up a casserole or sloppy joes.

  • Is everyone in your household onboard? Kids (or anyone else) who are used to chicken nuggets, fish sticks, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes may need a little time to get used to the kinds of meals you’ll serve on the Mediterranean diet.

    Yes, these foods are delicious, but they’re also different. If your family’s definition of good eats reads like a hit list of comfort foods, making small changes may be the better choice.

  • Are your kids picky eaters? Although some picky eaters may need an opportunity to get used to Mediterranean-inspired dishes, the diet’s reliance on whole, simply prepared foods may appeal to picky eaters who don’t want any surprises and don’t like their foods touching.

  • Do you find big changes exciting or stressful? Who needs more tension? No one. So go with the approach that helps you feel good about the changes you’re making and doesn’t add stress to your already busy life.

Still don’t think you’re ready to make wholesale changes yet? You can benefit from making smaller changes to your current diet to bring it more in line with the Mediterranean diet.

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