The traditional Mediterranean dietary pattern has been well studied, and details about its health benefits continue to roll in. Research studies that have included more than 1.5 million people have demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of several major chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. This eating pattern has also been shown to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. In fact, this beneficial dietary pattern has been praised by all of the major scientific organizations.
Main Points of the Mediterranean Diet
• Based on traditional diets of Greece and southern Italy
• The biggest component? Eat predominantly plant-based foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
• Emphasis on heart-healthy fats, including olive oil, nuts, and seeds (rather than butter)
• Focus on fatty fish (at least two servings per week)
• Savor small amounts of lean poultry, low-fat dairy products (especially yogurt), and eggs (in smaller portions than are typical of what is consumed in the U.S.).
• Use less sodium and flavor food with spices, herbs, and aromatic vegetables.
• Very little red meat is consumed--once or twice a month at most--usually used in small amounts to add some flavor to sauces or pasta, bean, or veggie dishes.
• Save sweet treats for special occasions.
• If you like red wine, enjoy it in moderation.
• Eat mindfully and center meals on family and friends.
• Get plenty of physical activity, aiming for a great deal of outdoor exercise.
Making Your Meals More Mediterranean
You can easily add a few components at a time into your diet to slowly transition into a more Mediterranean style of eating. Making a couple of small changes that you can sustain over a lifetime is much easier than trying to overhaul your diet overnight. Start by adopting one new food habit a week. Because a Mediterranean diet is just a term used to describe an overall eating pattern rather than a strict, structured “diet," you will not feel restricted.
• Tack on an extra serving of fruit and an extra serving of vegetables to each day (replace a starchy food). One simple way to achieve this goal is by adding produce to foods you already enjoy eating. For example, sauté shredded carrots or zucchini with lean ground beef for tacos, or toss in a couple handfuls of broccoli or cauliflower to your pasta dishes.
• Once a week, swap out one serving of red or processed meat for a serving of fish (particularly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, rainbow trout, albacore tuna, herring, sardines, or anchovies).
• Up your exercise with an easy physical activity that is an integral part of the Mediterranean lifestyle — walking! Tack on a twenty-minute evening stroll to burn calories while also relieving stress.
• Rather than using a refined grain like all-purpose flour to coat your fish or chicken, try using crushed up nuts as a crunchy, heart-healthy coating. Or, add a 1.5 ounce serving of unsalted nuts to your day twice a week and work your way up to relishing a daily serving of nourishing nuts. To intensify their flavor, trying roasting or toasting them.
• Snack on a serving of plain, low-fat yogurt topped with berries at least once per week.
• To cut back on red and processed meat without eliminating it completely, start subbing in beans, a Mediterranean mainstay, for half of the amount of ground beef or turkey in your recipes.
• The Mediterranean diet is not low-fat. Rather, it underscores the priority of consuming healthy fats--olive oil in particular. Seek out extra-virgin olive oil as it is the least processed and contains the most beneficial antioxidants. Use olive oil to sauté or drizzle over roasted vegetables, to dip your whole-grain bread in, and in homemade salad dressings.
• For a crunchy, more nutrient-dense snack than potato chips, try roasted chickpeas.
• Don’t forget to spice things up — literally. The Mediterranean diet is lower in sodium than most Western diets, but you can amp up the flavor with herbs and spices.
• Make dining a social event by enjoying meals with loved ones.
[Image via Getty]