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The Mediterranean Diet: Should You Try It?

The Mediterranean "diet," or eating pattern, has been extensively studied and long revered for its numerous health benefits. But did you know that adopting a Mediterranean eating pattern may help whittle your waist as well?

The Mediterranean diet isn't really a "diet" and shouldn't be lumped in with fad diets because it's more of an overall eating pattern and lifestyle. There are many countries in the Mediterranean region, all of which contribute their own diverse and complex cooking styles, ingredients, and food preferences. However, there are similarities among their eating habits and they're based on the dietary traditions of Crete, southern Italy, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and others. There are several key components to the Mediterranean eating pattern. These include eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, nuts, and seeds, incorporating healthy fats such as olive oil and fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, eating very little meat, and complementing fresh, tasty dishes with heart-healthy red wine. There is also an emphasis on basing meals around foods that are seasonal, minimally-processed and locally-grown.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study that showed that eating a Mediterranean-type, reduced-calorie diet was equally as effective for weight loss as following a low-carbohydrate diet. This same study found that the Mediterranean-style eating pattern actually helped people lose more weight than a typical low-fat diet. Researchers also found that the Mediterranean eating pattern helped diabetics achieve greater blood glucose control. Another 12-year study with nearly 2,500 subjects showed that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a significant decrease in body weight compared to those who followed a "Western" diet.

One aspect of the Mediterranean diet that sets it apart from other typical "diets" is that it focuses on foods you can have, not foods you must avoid or limit. Usually when people go on "diets," there are foods components (mainly fat and/or carbohydrates) or even entire food groups that are either forbidden, or, in the very least, severely restricted. Not so with the Mediterranean eating pattern. People in the Mediterranean region eat many types of foods and focus on deriving pleasure from eating.

To make your diet more Mediterranean, use beans, fish, nuts, and legumes as your main protein sources instead of meat. A few small changes can make your diet more Mediterranean-inspired. Try going meatless once a week. Many Americans are now adopting a "meatless Monday" tradition by forgoing meats on Monday and opting for vegetarian dishes once weekly rather than overhauling their diets to be completely meatless.  

Swap out saturated fats (found in meat, dairy, butter, fried dishes, and processed foods) for heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish. Mediterraneans use olive oil as their main fat source. It contains a compound called oleocanthal, which reduces inflammation. Unlike most eating plans that people turn to for weight loss, the Mediterranean eating pattern does not focus on reducing total fat in the diet, but rather emphasizes choosing healthy fats. In fact, people in the Mediterranean region consume a large percentage of their calories from fat but they mainly consume unsaturated fat. Since they limit processed, packaged, "convenience" foods, and they prepare the majority of their meals at home from fresh ingredients rather than relying on fast-food or restaurant meals, their diets are naturally low in trans-fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Toast to the good life and enjoy a glass of wine with your meals. Studies have proven that wine increases your HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and protects against artery damage. This is due to the polyphenols, especially resveratrol, that are found in red wine. While all wines contain the heart-healthy antioxidant resveratrol, there's a higher concentration of this substance in red wines than in white wines. If you don't imbibe, you can reap the same health benefits by adding grapes, cranberries, blueberries or peanuts to your diet. Always drink in moderation.

A study out of Spain found that participants whose diets most closely resembled the Mediterranean diet saw an 83% reduced risk of developed type 2 diabetes compared to those whose diets were least like the Mediterranean eating pattern. Research has also proven that the Mediterranean diet reduces inflammation, decreases depression, lowers blood pressure, lowers blood lipid levels, and may help lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

The Mediterranean diet isn't really a diet, but a lifestyle. Mediterraneans focus on savoring their food in the proper portions, remaining physically active and celebrating relationships with their friends and families. Salud!

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.

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