What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet includes a specific balance of foods that’s high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and contains the perfect balance of fatty acids. Alas, you can’t just eat your way to Mediterranean health. Living a healthy lifestyle means you have to look at all aspects of your life.
Along with the food plan is a way of life that includes regular physical activity and time for rest, community, and fun; for the folks on the Mediterranean coast, this combination seems to have created that ever-elusive life balance.
Focus on healthy fats.
Although Mediterranean residents don’t consume a low-fat diet, their dietary pattern is considered heart-healthy. How can that be?
Not all fats are created equal. People in the Mediterranean consume more of the healthier types of fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids) and less of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and saturated fats other cultures tend to overload on.
Don’t like fish? You can get omega-3 fatty acids in other ways, such as with fish oil supplements or by eating lots of fresh herbs, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Instead of focusing on total fat intake, these folks maintain a healthier ratio of these different groups of fats than you see in the United States; they consume about 35 percent of their total daily calories from fat, but less than 8 percent of their calories come from saturated fats.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average intake of saturated fats in the United States is 11 percent of daily calories.
Use dairy in moderation.
You may think of the Mediterranean as a cheese-eater’s heaven, but the truth is that the Mediterranean areas included in the Mediterranean diet don’t consume an abundance of cheese. Dairy is consumed on a daily basis in the Mediterranean diet, and cheese (along with yogurt) is a common source of calcium; however, moderation is the key (isn’t it always?).
Incorporate two to three servings of dairy products daily. One serving may include an eight-ounce glass of milk, eight ounces of yogurt, or an ounce of cheese. Stick with the low-fat versions of milk and yogurt to help lower your saturated fat intake; because you’re eating so little of it, you can go with regular cheese if you want.
Eat primarily plant-based foods.
One of the most important concepts of the Mediterranean diet pattern is consuming tons of plant foods such as fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. People in the Mediterranean commonly eat five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables each day, which often means having two to three vegetable servings with each meal.
Other daily staples include legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas, and whole grains such as bulgur wheat or barley.
Foods in these categories are naturally low in calories and high in nutrients, which makes weight- and health-management easy.
Punch up the flavor with fresh herbs and spices.
Fresh herbs and spices not only add tremendous flavor to food but also have many hidden health benefits. If you already use ample herbs and spices in your own cooking, you’re on the right track.
Enjoy seafood weekly.
Seafood is a weekly staple in the Mediterranean diet, and with good reason. Not only is it a local product, but it’s also a great source of those coveted omega-3 fatty acids. If you live near a coast, you have a great opportunity to find fresh fish in your local stores and restaurants. If you’re landlocked, don’t discount lakes and rivers for fresh fish.
Limit red meat.
Red meat used to be a luxury item in rural parts of the Mediterranean, so folks there ate it less frequently. Even though it’s now more accessible to the average Joe, the serving limits have stuck over the years.
Beef is only served once or twice a month in the Mediterranean rather than several times a week like in many U.S. kitchens. And when it does hit the table, it’s usually as a small (two- to three-ounce) side dish rather than an eight-plus-ounce entree. This habit helps ensure a reasonable intake of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids.
Have a nice glass of wine.
Wine lovers, rejoice! Drinking a glass of wine with dinner is certainly a common practice in the Mediterranean regions. Red wine has special nutrients that are shown to be heart-healthy; however, moderation is so important. Enjoying some red wine a couple times a week is certainly a good plan for heart health, although you want to check with your doctor to ensure its okay for you.
Get in a good dose of daily activity.
Historically, the people in the rural Mediterranean got plenty of daily activity through work, getting where they needed to go on foot, and having fun. Although you may rely heavily on your car and think this lifestyle isn’t realistic for you, you can still find ways to incorporate both aerobic exercise (which gets your heart rate up) and strength-training exercises regularly.