For many people, being on a certain diet is the norm these days. After all, food fuels our bodies from the inside out and it has the power to heal (or destroy) us. For some, butter is the enemy, but for others, it is the foundation of their high fat diet. Others have sworn to shun carbs for the rest of their lives because it’s what they consider the healthiest.
Perhaps you’re one of those people who would rather not focus on the foods that you should avoid but rather on what should be on your plate regularly.
If so, emulating the traditional eating habits of people living near the Mediterranean Sea may be a good strategy for you.
In 2018, a panel of health experts contended that sticking to the Mediterranean diet is one of the best diets out there in terms of nutritional soundness, weight control, and reducing the likelihood of certain lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
How much truth is there to this claim?
This article will dive deeper into the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) — what it is, what the experts have to say about it, and recent established research findings of the diet and its role in improving body composition.
What Exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?
When you think of the word the Mediterranean, what comes to mind?
You’d probably think of endless sunshine and the cerulean blue of the ocean stretching far and wide. And the diet?
You’re not wrong if you can envision yourself hoarding freshly-caught fish, plump avocados, olives, some creamy mozzarella, and a glass of wine to cap off your evening.
The truth is there isn’t one exact formula to eating the Mediterranean way.
In a nutshell, you take into account the traditional food choices, lifestyles, and eating patterns of several countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea.
Ancel Keys, a physiologist from Minnesota, was the first scientist to champion the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. After leading the Seven Countries Study in 1958 (which lasted for decades), he suggested that a diet low in saturated fat and high in vegetable oils is protective against coronary heart disease and can boost heart health.
In 1993, Oldways, a non-profit food and nutrition organization, designed the MedDiet Pyramid. In partnership with the World Health Organization and Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways created the pyramid as a healthier alternative to the USDA’s original food pyramid.
Here’s what it looks like:
As illustrated in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, there’s an emphasis on physical activities and building social connections each day at the base. These activities can range from strenuous exercises, such as aerobics and weight training to leisurely pursuits like gardening. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator also counts!
As you move upward, you’ll find that these basic food groups are what you should focus on getting the most of every day: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs, spices, and healthy fats with emphasis on olive oil.
Next, you have fish and seafood which you should enjoy at least twice a week. Apart from being an essential source of protein, you’ll also get your fill of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Some foods you can include in your diet are fish such as herring and sardines as well as oysters, clams, and mussels.
And then there’s dairy – with emphasis on certain fermented dairy products such as yogurt and traditional cheeses. These are the ones that you should aim to eat frequently in small portions. Eggs and the occasional poultry are also part of the eat-in-moderation list.
The MedDiet pyramid suggests that red meat and sweets should be rarely eaten. When eating red meat, opt for scant helpings of lean cuts. For sweets, think of it as a treat rather than a regular part of your daily meal.
Finally, you can have water and wine. For the latter, women can have up to one glass per day while men can have up to two. This alcohol intake guideline is very much alike to Mayo Clinic’s.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if there’s more to the diet and physical activity when going Mediterranean. It seems like your hunch is right!
A documentary led by British cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra defines the MedDiet as more of a lifestyle. He further describes that “It’s the food. It’s the social interaction. It’s getting the right kind of exercise. It’s being outside. It’s getting sunlight and sunshine.”
One last thing: if you’re curious about how much of each food group should be on your plate, a review published in 2015 wanted to quantitatively define the MedDiet by food groups and nutrients found.
Here’s what the MedDiet roughly looks like according to the intakes reported by respondents from various studies:
- Total energy intake was 9300 kJ (around 2,220 calories)
- 43% of intake was from carbohydrates, including 33 g of fiber per day
- 37% of intake was fat (19% monounsaturated fats, 5% polyunsaturated fats, and 9% saturated fats)
- 15% intake from protein sources
The table below illustrates servings and portions of the aforementioned food groups in grams. Zoom in on the first row (average content of the MedDiet) for suggested daily servings.
Why the Mediterranean Diet Can Be a Great Starting Point for You
It’s true that there’s no such thing as the perfect diet. It’s also true that even though human bodies are inherently the same, people will respond differently to a certain diet.
This diet may work for you, but there’s no guarantee that it will work for your partner or your coworker. We’re a complex species like that. But it’s built some recent buzz in our culture today.
For instance, the Mediterranean diet ranked #1 (tied with the DASH diet) as the best diet last year by U.S. News. The rankings were made after a panel of nationally recognized experts in nutrition, food psychology, diabetes, and heart disease reviewed every diet profile to check for certain categories.
They rated each food in terms of:
- Ease of compliance
- Weight loss effectiveness (both short-term and long-term)
- Nutritional completeness (based on conformance with the federal government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans)
- Potential for preventing and managing diabetes
- Potential for preventing and managing cardiovascular disease
What Research Has to Say So Far About the Mediterranean Diet
For decades, the Mediterranean diet has been the focus of careful study and scrutiny.
Here’s what we’ve extracted so far in terms of recent findings on it and its relationship to body composition, weight loss, and its role in possibly preventing the occurrence of diabetes and heart problems.
To begin, a study on 248 healthy women published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that, when combined with exercise, the Mediterranean diet could help reduce body fat accumulation in the lower body, which will contribute to a lower overall health risk. It’s also worth noting that neglecting your lower body composition can potentially lead to a host of health issues, particularly in the elderly.
Another experimental study in subjects with coronary artery disease revealed that introducing the Mediterranean diet alone led to significant reductions in total body fat mass, though these reductions were greater when combined with exercise.
Furthermore, a meta analysis published in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders concluded that the MedDiet “may be a useful tool to reduce body weight, especially when the diet is energy-restricted (eating fewer calories than normal), associated with physical activity, and more than 6 months in length.”
As for patients with diabetes and cardiovascular problems, a 5-year trial of more than 7,000 adults (with Type 2 diabetes and three or more cardiovascular risk factors) were assigned three Mediterranean diet variations, which revealed interesting findings.
The three diet variations were: 1. A MedDiet supplemented with olive oil, 2. a MedDiet supplemented with nuts, or 3. the control diet (usual advice for patients to reduce fat intake).
The researcher’s findings revealed that subjects on the Mediterranean versions added the fewest inches to their waistlines. The ones in the olive oil group lost the most weight, reinforcing the point that eating fat doesn’t always make you fat.
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, the Mediterranean diet shows a lot of promise in addressing Alzheimer’s Disease. Research suggests that the diet may slow cognitive decline in older adults, reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and reduce the risk of MCI in progressing into Alzheimer’s disease.
All these findings indicate the MedDiet is not just another fad diet. Think of it as a more sustainable way of building healthy eating habits. Plus, it has been consistently proven by research to reduce the incidence of lifestyle diseases and promote a healthier body composition.
Adopting the Mediterranean Lifestyle
A deeper look at the lifestyle will reveal that it has three basic elements: following the diet, physical activity, and high levels of socializing.
The good news is sticking to the diet doesn’t translate to strict calorie counting, following every macronutrient guideline, or moving to an island in Greece or Italy for good. In short, it’s sustainable and easy to follow.
If you want to change your diet and lifestyle into something a bit more Mediterranean, taking the following steps is a good start:
- Add more vegetables to your meals – from salads to stews to pizzas. Legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, and peas are also common on the Mediterranean plate.
- Switch to whole grains or favor products made from whole grain flour. Apart from being nutrient-dense, the high fiber content can improve your heart health and may lower blood pressure. Think quinoa or couscous. Minimize consumption of refined carbohydrates like white bread and breakfast cereals.
- Skip the chocolate cake for dessert once in a while and eat fresh fruits like oranges and bananas and even antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries and pomegranates.
- Use meat as a condiment instead of the main dish. For instance, you can add strips of chicken or beef into a vegetable sauté.
- Have some fish and seafood at least three times a week.You can never go wrong with sardines, herring, salmon, clams, and oysters.
- Consider going vegetarian for at least one day per week. Steer clear of processed meats containing high levels of preservatives, including “low-fat” deli items.
- Find ways to add healthy fats like avocados, sunflower seeds, nuts, and peanuts to your meals. How about adding crushed almonds to your whole grain pasta?
- Add some dairy into your life like cheese and Greek or plain yogurt.
- Drizzle olive oil into cooked fish or vegetables, or use it as a dip for bread. Vegetables that are grilled, roasted, or sautéed in olive oil are more flavorful!
- Add more physical activity to your daily routine and walk when you can. Most of all, go out for the evening and talk to friends and family!
Making It Work to Improve Your Body Composition
It’s no surprise that MedDiet is touted as one of the best diets out there because of the many health benefits that come from following the dietary changes. One research study after the other reveals that it can help improve body composition and keep you away from the dreaded chronic health problems plaguing us today.
However, making it work for you boils down to your body composition goals. This means getting your body composition tested before you embark on the MedDiet lifestyle.
With your body composition results in hand, you’ll be able to set smart goals and build habits that will help you achieve health and fitness outcomes that are equal parts successful and sustainable.
Kyjean Tomboc is a nurse turned freelance healthcare copywriter and UX researcher. After experimenting with going paleo and vegetarian, she realized that it all boils down to eating real food.