Mediterranean Diet 101: Principles and Benefits

There is a reason the Mediterranean Diet is so highly desired and promoted by dietitians and doctors. This diet has substantial evidence to support its health benefits. Benefits include reduction of risk for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, strokes, some neuro-degenerative diseases, and cancers.

What is the Mediterranean Diet and why should I follow this diet?

The food patterns promoted by the Mediterranean Diet may be traced to the inhabitants of Crete, Greece, Italy, and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. In these regions, olive cultivation is prominent. Plus, access to the bordering sea makes seafood commonplace in main meals and plant-based foods make up the foundation of all meals.

Individuals in these regions are also physically active and set aside mealtimes to eat and connect with others. Those living in these regions display great health and have a low incidence of chronic conditions.

The foundations of the Mediterranean Diet include whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, seafood, herbs and spices, and olives (olive oil). Olive oil is the main source of fat. Olive oil is a healthy fat rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. This type of fat helps promote healthy blood lipids by lowering overall cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and raising HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Other foods found in moderation include low fat fairy, poultry, and eggs.

In this diet, fish and seafood are the main protein components. Fish and seafood are high in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, two fatty acids that help reduce inflammation, reduce risk of heart disease, and protect the brain from neurodegeneration. Red meat is seldom seen in the diet, with processed meat even less common. By placing an emphasis more on fish and less on red meat, we naturally reduce the total saturated fat in the diet. Studies show when saturated fat is replaced with unsaturated fats (those found in seafood, olive oil, nuts, and seeds), blood lipids change favorably and overall risk for cardiovascular disease decreases. All these options are also lower in saturated fats, contributing to the heart disease sparing effects of this diet.

Implementing fresh fruit and vegetables in larger quantities also increases the intake of fiber in the diet. Fiber is needed for healthy gut health, blood sugar regulation, healthy blood lipids and helps promote a healthy body weight. Whole grains and legumes are also rich in favor and offer these health benefits.

On a well-rounded Mediterranean plate, you will find about half of the plate abound with fresh non-starchy vegetables (bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, etc.), a quarter of the plate filled with whole grains, starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, winter squash) and/or fruit and the other quarter with protein (salmon, chicken, beans, cheese, etc.). These foods are primarily eaten raw, lightly steamed, or roasted with olive oil and spices to add flavor and richness. Foods that are seldom found in any meal or snack include deep fried foods, full cream/fat dairy, red meat, refined grains (white bread, white rice, chips, etc.) and highly processed foods (pastries, cookies, candy, etc.).

Easy ways to start eating along the principles of the Mediterranean Diet:

-Make the focus of your plate vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and seafood.

-Seek healthy fats, primarily olive oil, nuts, and seeds.

-Aim to include fish at least twice a week.

-Instead of sweets as dessert, choose fresh, sweet fruit.

Written by: Magda Sim, Registered Dietitian, 20/20 LifeStyles

Magda is a registered dietitian who provides nutrition counseling for 20/20 Lifestyles clients and the general public. She utilizes her knowledge and experience to provide individualized nutrition advice for weight loss, maintenance, optimized body composition and overall health. Her goal is to allow clients to improve their quality of life by eating in a way that is both sustainable and enjoyable long term. She has experience working with a diverse range of clients, garnering most of her nutrition experience at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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