Understanding the Mediterranean Diet — it’s both simpler and more to it than you might realize
There is a lot to love about the Mediterranean diet. U.S. News and World Report crowned it the “best diet” for overall health, slapping away popular, trendier diets such as Paleo and Keto. Take that, trendy diets! The Mediterranean Diet spits in the milk of your, er, milk.
The Mediterranean Diet is linked to heart health and longevity, and probably provides meaningful protection against diabetes, obesity, and possible dementia and some cancers. If you follow the diet, you are likely reaping health benefits, including a slimmer waistline.
If you’re not, you may be missing out. The Mediterranean Diet, more complex than meets the eye, is a lifestyle of eating patterns and daily habits of people living in the Mediterranean countries, particularly the olive growing regions of Greece and Italy.
21 countries border the Mediterranean Sea. While each has its own cuisine and food culture, the broader dietary patterns of the region remain similar.
The meals have a plant-centric foundation, featuring fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and lots of cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. Fish of all kinds of course is a staple, along with smaller portions of red meat, poultry, and eggs than we typically consume. Dairy, usually from sheep and goat milk, is big, and not demonized, in the form of full-fat cheese and yogurt. You’ll find whole grain sourdough bread on the table (very good news for many of us!), along with glasses of red wine (more good news!) and lots of water. Alcohol is not frowned upon but, you know, drinking too much is not good for you no matter where you are, or how much fish you’re eating.
Sounds delicious, and easy to follow! And it is, basically. There’s no calorie counting (it never occurred to them), or fasting days, or eliminating entire food groups. Everything is on plan, even pasta. But, like most things in life, the devil is in the details.
What to eat is important, but you need to master correct portion sizes and proportions of food on your plate. Meals should be built around non-starchy vegetables (from a farmer’s market, if possible), with whole grains, legumes and lean protein.
Eating this way requires a paradigm shift in the way we approach meals in the US, where abundant animal protein and refined grains dominate, and vegetables, like threadbare cousins, barely make an appearance. In the US we virtually worship volume over quality. The All You Can Eat buffet is a quasi culinary altar.
But what’s wrong with a big, fresh salad made with arugula, radicchio, endive, dressed with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil to start? Nothing, right? Grilled seasonal vegetables paired with a ½ cup serving of farro salad, and a 3-4-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards) of fish to follow. The food flavored with garlic, fresh herbs and spices (rather than unhealthy quantities of salt) and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, for satiety, taste, and an extra healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
It will help you to burn fat, fight inflammation and keep disease at bay, and isn’t this the entire reason for being on a “diet” in the first place? If you’ve been to the Mediterranean, what did your plates look like? The Olive Garden is not the model here…
What’s not on the plan looks suspiciously like everything that’s wrong with the standard American diet. Added sugars, refined grains, processed and packaged foods — if it comes in a box or has more than 5 ingredients, put it down! — processed meats, refined oils, such as most vegetable oil, are known drivers of disease. And, not coincidentally, absent in the Mediterranean Diet.
Ditch that lot, no matter what dietary plan you follow, and your body will thank you.
You’ll need to dig a little deeper if you want to incorporate the more transformational gifts of the lifestyle.
The real magic happens off the plate, in the daily habits and rituals of Mediterranean life. Before you despair at the “Duh!” moment that you are not, yourself, actually in the Mediterranean, know that you can incorporate some of the wellness lessons of the region in whatever possibly polluted hovel you are reading this.
The Mediterranean lifestyle is holistic, and embraces being physically active by choice and preference, and a pure quality of food, with long ingrained traditions of family and community. Those factors are not insignificant. They contribute to well-being. Meals are long, communal affairs that provide refuge and a calmness and return to perspective in a busy day. Again, if you have been there, think about how life unfolded around you, and how you so loved and allowed yourself to surrender to the sense of being in the moment.
The Mediterranean lifestyle invariably involves caring about the preparing of meals, because the Mediterraneans care about the consuming and sharing of them.
It may not be our reality to scratch cook everything and celebrate long, family meals every day, but what’s stopping you from trying to a little more? Or putting more effort into getting better ingredients? If you’re eating alone, just unplugging and eating slowly decreases stress, aids digestion, and creates calm. You like calm, don’t you?
The X factor of the Mediterranean Diet is probably being in the Mediterranean. But you can recreate the food disciplines, the habits and the mindset at home. You really can. You can acceptably emulate the ingredients — not exactly, but certainly sufficiently!
And do you really need a guru to tell you to make time to share the meal, and yourself, with the people you care about and who care about you, and to turn off your damn phone for a while?