[Hey, Maria here… Today, we’ll discuss the Mediterranean diet, why science approves of this diet, and I’m also going to share with you a sample Mediterranean diet meal plan. This is a subject very dear to my heart because I’m not just Greek, I’m from Crete. Crete is one of the places in the med region where the 7 countries study took place.
So I don’t just know what the Mediterranean diet is, I didn’t just grow up with it, I also know all the ways it’s been constantly distorted by the media to something that looks like the Mediterranean diet but it’s not exactly.
My grandparents would laugh out loud at the chicken sandwiches or tuna salad lunches proposed as lunches or dinners on most of the med diet meal plans you’ll find online.
I’ll leave some of the misconceptions for another article, but today we’ll discuss both why the Mediterranean diet is so awesome (Rachael Link, an registered dietitian, will review in detail) and I’ll also give one sample Mediterranean diet meal plan – according to the original Mediterranean diet – not the bastardized one I often encounter on the web.
Ok that’s it from me, let’s hear Rachael’s science-based review of the Mediterranean diet.]
Since we started our diet review series, we’ve looked at a pretty wide range of diets. From extremes like injecting yourself with hormones in the HCG diet plan to following nutrition advice from car companies in the GM diet plan, it’s become pretty clear that there are a lot of different diet plans out there—and not all of them are recommended.
Today, though, we’re looking at the Mediterranean diet, a diet pattern that’s probably pretty familiar to most of us for both its popularity and abundant health benefits, not to mention deliciousness. Who doesn’t love chowing down on a slice of pizza or a hearty Greek salad?
Scientists have had their eye on the Mediterranean diet since the 1950s when researcher Ancel Keys brought it into the spotlight.
Keys started noticing an influx of heart disease in the United States and wondered about the cause. He saw other countries with much lower rates of heart problems and decided to do some detective work to get to the bottom of it.
Kicking off what became known as the Seven Countries Study, Keys began collecting data on blood levels, diet, and prevalence of heart disease in countries around the world, including the USA, Finland, Italy, Greece, Japan, Yugoslavia, and the Netherlands.
He was one of the first to solidify the significance of diet, noting that countries like Italy and Greece had lower rates of mortality and heart disease compared to other parts of the US and Europe. He associated this with the cardioprotective effects of what would later become known as the Mediterranean Diet.
What is Mediterranean food, and what does it really mean to follow a “Mediterranean diet meal plan?”
The Mediterranean diet refers to a way of eating centered around foods traditionally eaten in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Instead of focusing on strict rules and regimens, the Mediterranean diet is more of a pattern of eating with several shared common characteristics between the regions. Some of the key components include:
- Cooking with olive oil and canola oil
- Limiting red meat, but enjoying meat and poultry at least twice a week
- Basing the diet around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes
- Using herbs and spices to season food
It’s important to note that, although many people associate the Mediterranean diet with unlimited wine consumption, that’s inaccurate. Moderate wine consumption is an optional component and enjoying a glass with dinner is fairly common with this diet. However, the health benefits of red wine are overhyped and definitely don’t contribute to the healthfulness of this diet.
That being said…
The Mediterranean diet is associated with many health benefits.
There’s no shortage on research with the Mediterranean diet. A quick search on PubMed yields hundreds of results, looking at the effects on the Mediterranean diet on everything from cancer to immune function.
Here are a few major findings demonstrating some of the health benefits that should be considered in this Mediterranean diet review:
It can help protect your heart.
Abellan et. al found that low adherence to the Mediterranean diet was connected to a high prevalence of hypertension, essentially raising the risk of cardiovascular disease.
A study in the journal Nutrition looked at both the DASH and Mediterranean diets, both of which are often cited for their cardiovascular benefits. While both had benefits on triglyceride levels, they showed that the Mediterranean diet had a significant effect on total cholesterol levels while the DASH diet did not.
Finally, a cohort study comprised of over 24,000 participants found that following the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease while dropping blood pressure and lipids.
It keeps your weight in check.
A cross-sectional study published in Food & Nutrition Research showed that following a Mediterranean diet pattern reduced the risk of being overweight or obese.
It’s also been shown to decrease weight; one study in The Lancet found that following an unrestricted, high-fat Mediterranean diet increased weight loss and reduced central adiposity.
Another Mediterranean diet review by Shai et. al compared the Mediterranean diet to a low-fat diet and found that the Mediterranean diet led to 65% more weight loss.
It slashes the risk of diabetes.
In a Mediterranean diet review published in the Journal of Nutrition, they reported that following the Mediterranean diet can have a protective effect on diabetes, citing up to a 30% reduction in the risk of diabetes.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the Mediterranean diet to a low-fat diet and noted that fasting plasma glucose and insulin levels were more favorable in the Mediterranean diet group.
Esposito et. al looked at low-carb Mediterranean diets compared to low-fat diets in participants recently diagnosed with diabetes. Adherence to a low-carb Mediterranean diet was associated with a greater decrease in hemoglobin A1c levels, a higher rate of remission, and a delayed need for medications compared to the low-fat group.
It can decrease the risk of cancer.
A review by Di Daniele et. al looked at the impact of the Mediterranean diet on several conditions, including cancer. They note that the Mediterranean diet can be beneficial in preventing cancer due to the high content of fiber and antioxidants in the foods commonly consumed.
One study in the European Journal of Cancer demonstrated this effect. They looked at the effect of a modified Mediterranean diet on cancer incidence and found that there was a significant inverse association with extrahepatic biliary tract cancer as well as gallbladder cancer.
A review in the Archives of Iranian Medicine looked specifically at breast cancer. The authors looked at the results of 8 studies and concluded that more evidence is needed before making any clear associations. They did, however, note that a protective association was observed in these studies.
It increases longevity.
In a recent prospective study, Harmon et. al found that following an alternate Mediterranean diet was linked to a significant decrease in all-cause mortality as well as mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising, given the extensive list of health benefits previously mentioned, affecting everything from diabetes risk to cardiovascular health.
But following the Mediterranean diet can also ease the aging process too by supporting our cognitive health.
Hardman et. al performed a systematic review on the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cognition and found that adherence to the diet was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline, improved cognitive function, and decreased conversion to Alzheimer’s disease.
Advocates of the diet claim that it can reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve overall health…without sacrificing flavor and palatability. But does it live up to the hype? Let’s start the Mediterranean diet review and take a look at the pros and cons when it comes to nutrition.
What does a Mediterranean diet meal plan consist of?
In this breakdown of the Mediterranean diet, I will review it and show you why it works.
1. Cooking with olive oil and canola oil comes with heart-healthy benefits.
The Mediterranean diet is not known for skimping when it comes to healthy fats. In fact, one of the crucial components of the diet is to trade saturated fat-rich butter for heart-healthy olive oil and canola oil.
Olive oil and canola oil are both good sources of monounsaturated fats, which have been tied to health benefits like reduced rates of heart disease.
Even olives themselves boast an impressive set of benefits, with a high amount of healthy fats and tons of anti-inflammatory vitamin E.
Though the benefits of unsaturated fatty acids in the diet remains undisputed, a more controversial question remains: is saturated fat bad for you? And is it really that much better to swap out your butter in favor of other types of fat?
Though saturated fat itself is not actually connected to heart disease, what you replace it with when you take it out of your diet can make a big impact.
One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that substituting 5% of the calories from saturated fat with unsaturated fatty acids caused the risk of coronary heart disease to plummet by 42%.
Additionally, another study by Wang et. al noted that replacing the same 5% of energy from saturated fat with poly- and monounsaturated fats was linked to a respective 27% and 13% drop in total mortality.
Mediterranean Diet Review: While butter isn’t inherently bad, replacing it with heart-healthy unsaturated fats can definitely have some beneficial effects on health.
2. The Mediterranean Diet encourages fish and poultry over red meat.
Though the Mediterranean diet doesn’t exclude red meat altogether, it does suggest limiting it to only once or twice per month in favor of leaner cuts of meat, like fish and poultry.
Limiting red meat can be beneficial to health, as it has been linked to the development of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even an increased risk of mortality.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week, citing a report from the Continuous Update Project, which concluded that red meat and processed meats are probable causes of colorectal cancer.
Instead, trading in your red meat for poultry or fish can deliver the same nutrients without the adverse health effects.
Chicken, for example is rich in protein, vitamin B12, selenium, and a host of other vitamins and minerals, plus less saturated fat than red meat.
Fish, on the other hand, contains a similar nutrient profile but also delivers a hearty dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
There’s also evidence showing that eating one to two servings of fish per week can come up with its own set of health benefits.
A report published by Mozaffarian et. al noted that modest consumption of fish reduces risk of coronary death by 36% and total mortality by 17%.
Mediterranean Diet Review: Scaling back on the red meat and including a few servings of poultry or fish can have beneficial effects on health.
3. Plant-based foods are key, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
Quite possibly the most important component of the Mediterranean diet is its emphasis on plant-based foods. When conducting a Mediterranean diet review, this is one aspect that definitely needs to be considered.
A plant-based diet typically includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The diet has been associated with decreases in chronic disease and prevention of obesity as well.
These foods are all nutrient-dense, which means they’re high in the good stuff—like vitamins and minerals—but low in calories and fat.
This is great when it comes to weight management, especially considering that about one-third of Americans are obese. That is a serious problem considering the barrage of health problems associated with obesity, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, and heart disease.
The foods on a plant-based diet are also rich in fiber. Not only is this great for your waistline because it keeps you feeling full, but there’s also evidence that fiber intake can be protective against certain types of cancer.
A 2011 study published in the journal BMJ, for example, found that intake of fiber, especially from whole grains and cereals, was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
Whole grains have also been tied to other awesome benefits, like improving glycemic control and keeping the heart in tip-top shape and lowering cardiovascular disease risk.
Even legumes are great for health, providing high amounts of protein and fiber that keep us full, keep away cravings, and come with a host of nutritional benefits.
Though many people tend to shy away from carbohydrates, when you get them from good sources like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, they can actually be beneficial to health.
A Mediterranean diet review by Szabo looked at the physiological effects of plant-based diets and concluded that following a plant-based diet can help treat and reduce the risk for a number of diseases, especially when it comes to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
Mediterranean Diet Review: Following a plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet can have some serious beneficial effects on health and chronic diseases, especially with preventing obesity, certain types of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
4. The Mediterranean Diet is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Besides decreasing saturated fat intake and upping intake of unsaturated fatty acids, the Mediterranean diet helps your heart by supplying a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids as well.
The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is seafood, a food group that is heavily encouraged on the Mediterranean diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for health, working to reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative stress.
Though omega-3 fatty acid has been linked to everything from improving eye health to fighting depression, the biggest benefit is on your heart.
A review by Peter et. al notes that omega-3 fatty acid promotes heart health by reducing triglyceride levels, decreasing the secretion of VLDL particles, and inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators involved in heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends getting in at least two servings a week of fish to meet omega-3 requirements. Besides fish, canola oil, walnuts, eggs/dairy products, fish oil, and flaxseed are all alternative sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Following a Mediterranean diet, you won’t have any trouble meeting the omega-3 recommendations.
Mediterranean Diet Review: Following a Mediterranean diet can help you meet the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids, promoting and maintaining both heart health and overall health in general.
Before we get to the Mediterranean diet review final report card, it’s important to note:
There isn’t one single “Mediterranean diet.”
In fact, with at least 16 countries bordering the Mediterranean sea and the Mediterranean diet being a cultural staple for at least seven of them, it’s a diet that’s definitely hard to define. The dietary patterns are highly influenced by economic and socio-cultural factors in each region.
A study in the journal Appetite compared compliance to the traditional Mediterranean diet and found major differences depending on the country of origin. Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet Serving Score, a tool used to assess compliance to the Mediterranean diet, was 6.36-fold higher in the Spanish population compared to the Palestine population.
That being said, there are some commonalities–as mentioned above–that can help determine just how healthful this pattern of eating really is.
Mediterranean Diet Review Report Card
Sustainability: A (excellent)
This diet isn’t overly restrictive and also offers plenty of variety, so it shouldn’t be difficult to sustain in the long-term.
Effectiveness: A (excellent)
If you’re looking for a good way to improve several aspects of your health, this is the way to go. From weight control to heart health, the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet is pretty well documented.
Nutrition: A (excellent)
This diet is loaded with beneficial nutrients while limiting foods that might not be as stellar for your health. The nutritional benefits of this diet have been proven time and time again.
Ability to Harm: A (excellent)
Given the flexibility and non-restrictiveness of the Mediterranean diet, it would be pretty challenging to find a way that following this diet could cause any harm.
Overall Grade: A
(Determined by an average of above subcategories)
In our diet review series, we’ve reviewed plenty of diets that are pretty out-there, unsustainable, and sometimes even unsafe. But when it comes to the Mediterranean diet, this is one that can really benefit pretty much every aspect of your health without any crazy diet rules or regulations.
What is the Mediterranean diet meal plan?
[Maria here again. Here’s the authentic Mediterranean diet meal plan I promised.
To clarify: I have nothing against chicken sandwiches for lunch it’s just that in the 60s when the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet started shining people in Greece were not doing that. They still don’t do that. This is actually a very American way to follow a Mediterranean diet meal plan.
Also: Just because the Mediterranean Diet is awesome from a science-based health perspective that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone and that everybody should do it. There is no one size fits all with diet. For example, if you’re suffering from diverticulitis, then a diverticulitis diet is what you need. If you want to follow a dairy-free lifestyle then you have to adjust to make that happen.]
1 slice spinach pie with coffee or tea on the side.
1 apple with a handful of almonds.
1 serving of lentils with 1 slice whole wheat bread and feta cheese on the side.
Add olives for extra flavor.
Salad with tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and green onion. Oregano on top of feta gives extra flavor. Add one slice of bread and don’t be stingy with olive oil.
Late-night snack (optional):
1 cup greek yoghurt.
Do how do you like this Mediterranean diet meal plan? Would you be interested in getting the recipes for it? Because if people ask for it I’d definitely consider sharing more about what my grandparents were actually eating. Leave a comment and let me know.
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