If you have excess weight to lose, you’ve likely heard of the Mediterranean diet and its substantial benefits. You may even have been told to follow it by your cardiologist or primary care physician. But what does the Mediterranean diet entail; and how is it different from other diets that you may have tried and ultimately failed?
It’s important to remember that the Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle change and less of pure weight loss challenge. The goal is to lower your risk of heart disease and other conditions exacerbated by poor diet and excess weight. Of course, losing weight is a very welcome part of the Mediterranean diet, if followed closely, and you can enjoy fresh wholesome foods while you’re at it.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet, along with several diets in other cultures, has been held up as preventative to chronic illness largely due to the longevity of people who follow these diets: for example, in southern Italy and Greece. Life expectancy is relatively higher and chronic illnesses relatively lower than in the US and it was clear that the diet played a significant part.
Is the Mediterranean diet all I need?
The short answer is no. Diet is very important, of course, and will yield the greatest results in the form of weight loss and disease improvement. However, other factors must be incorporated to ensure longer term cardiovascular health. These include exercise – both cardio and strength training as well as modifying habits including quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and improving stress management. Not addressing these concerns may negate some of the benefit of an improved diet.
So how does one get started?
- Fats are often vilified in the modern-day diet, but they shouldn’t be. There are two fats we consume in our diets – saturated and unsaturated. The saturated fats must be limited, but many high calorie fatty foods are extremely healthy. These include olive oil, avocados, oily fish including salmon, nuts like almonds and walnuts and more.
- Adjusting your meat consumption. The Mediterranean diet involves a significant shift away from dairy and red meat to leaner cuts of meat and fish. Shellfish are lean, delicious, and though high in (good) cholesterol, still very beneficial. Whitefishes, like trout, bass and cod are also exceptionally nutritious and low in calories. Remember to prepare these without frying as that can eliminate their health benefit.
- A major problem in the cardiovascular health of the average American revolves around high sugar drinks like sodas and fruit juice. However, no calorie or low-calorie sweeteners can also be problematic, as they trick the brain into wanting more sweetness. Instead, these sweetened drinks should be replaced with water, plain and simple. The Mediterranean diet also allows for wine, particularly red wine – about two glasses a day for men and one for women.
So, will the Mediterranean diet work for me?
The answer is nuanced. On the surface, the Mediterranean diet is an ideal combination of healthy and delicious foods. However, there are many factors affecting how effective it is for you. First, beyond dieting, you must improve your exercise habits and reduce stress as much as possible. Without these two components, no diet will be fully successful. Also, food must be prepared in a heart healthy way, which means less fried, fewer preservatives and less sugar.
Here, we must also stress portion sizes. Societally, we have changed our opinion on what is a normal – portion-wise. Sadly, what is considered normal today may be two or three times more than what our parents or grandparents would have eaten in a single meal. The results are clear and so far, there is very little evidence that the obesity and diabetes trend is reversing. Understanding your portion sizes is key to ensuring that the Mediterranean diet will work.
One of the most interesting benefits of a Mediterranean diet is its effect on cognitive function. While we are focusing on its benefits to the heart, it is worth knowing that it helps slow the signs of aging. Many of the foods enjoyed as part of the Mediterranean diet are anti-inflammatory, which can help ward off chronic diseases including cognitive disorders that have increased dramatically in the past generation or two.
Ultimately, if the Mediterranean diet is part of a larger effort to prioritize your health and improve both your physical and mental well-being, it can be extremely successful and may be the catalyst that drives the prevention of heart disease later in life.