The Mediterranean Diet: Is It For You?
May is National Mediterranean Diet Month!
When you hear “Mediterranean Diet” you probably think of olive oil and red wine, right? Well, there’s much more to this healthy eating style — in fact, you likely enjoy many of the foods inspired by the Med diet each day — think hummus, fish, whole grains, walnuts, and Greek yogurt.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is based on the foods consumed by people living in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea – Italy, Spain, France, Morocco, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Israel. Meals consist mainly of these foods:
- fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes
- an abundance of bread, pasta, rice, couscous, and other grain foods, especially whole grains
- nuts and peanuts
- extra virgin olive oil
- fish, poultry and lean red meat
- cheese and yogurt
- moderate amounts of wine
I’ve always been a big supporter of this style of eating and recently had the opportunity to get some of my own questions about the diet answered by Georgia Orcutt, the program manager for Oldways and the Mediterranean Foods Alliance.
What is the main difference between the standard American diet and the Mediterranean diet?
With all the regional foods and regional cooking styles in America, it’s tricky to talk about one standard American diet. But as processed foods have taken over a large part of American supermarkets, they have also become central to the American diet.
In contrast, the Mediterranean Diet emphasizes eating mostly whole grains, plenty of vegetables and fruits, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and peanuts, and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil. And here’s another difference: Americans tend to eat a lot of meat, often two or three time per day. The Mediterranean Diet recommends eating seafood at least twice a week, making one or two meals a week vegetarian, and if you do include meat, eating it in small amounts, such as garnishing pasta with it, or limiting the portion size to about 3 ounces and not eating it every day. In the traditional Mediterranean Diet meat is served for feasts and special occasions.
Plant fats are an important source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. Where does dairy fit in and how is it incorporated into the Mediterranean diet?
Cheese and yogurt are eaten regularly in the traditional Mediterranean Diet, but in low to moderate amounts. Portion control is very important. If you enjoy cheese with fruit as a dessert, have a few small cubes. Sprinkle parmesan on a dish of cooked pasta. Top cereal or fruit with Greek yogurt, which has twice the protein of regular yogurt. And use Greek yogurt to make dips and dressings. It’s a healthy substitute for mayonnaise or sour cream.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid promotes an abundance of bread, pasta, rice, couscous, and other grain foods, especially whole grains. How is this different from the US Pyramid and hasn’t this proven ineffective in weight management?
To our way of thinking here at Oldways, the Mediterranean Diet pyramid is easier to understand than the USDA pyramid. We make it very clear that whole grains can be part of every meal but here again, portion control is very important. And in terms of weight management, it’s very important to distinguish between whole grains and refined grains and also to understand that the Med Diet pyramid is based upon exercise and eating with others. Whole grains promote satiety – keep you feeling full longer – and they are nutritious. The goal is to have about 1/2 cup of rice, about 2/3 to 1 cup of pasta, one slice of bread. If you stick to these portion sizes, eat grains with a lot of vegetables and healthy fats, season your meals with herbs and spices so they taste great, make exercise part of every day, and eat as often as possible with others, you will go along way toward managing your weight.
Why is fish so important in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid and not grouped with the other protein sources? What do you recommend for people who don’t like fish?
Fish is part of the traditional Mediterranean Diet because the countries surrounding the Mediterranean aren’t big beef producers. Fish traditionally was inexpensive and easy to find. And it is the traditional diet that was originally used to study the remarkable health benefits of this type of eating. Scientists today continue to tout the health benefits (especially for brain and heart health) of the omega-3’s in fatty fish, especially tuna, herring, salmon, and sardines, as well as shellfish such as mussels, oysters, and clams. We can easily find these fish in America today. Someone who doesn’t like fish has probably never eaten it well prepared. We’d recommend experimenting with some mild white fish, perhaps coated with herbs and bread crumbs and baked in the oven. Or try a fish soup and drunk a piece of hearty bread in that. Or try some smoked salmon, which has a different flavor and texture. If someone insists they will never eat fish, they can build vegetarian meals around beans, whole grains, vegetables, herbs and spices.
The Med diet recommends enjoying meals with others. What are the health benefits of this practice? Why would you include this in the pyramid?
If you’re enjoying meals with others, you aren’t dashing into a fast food restaurant to inhale a quick meal. And if you eat in the presence of conversation, you’re not mindlessly eating in front of the TV. The Mediterranean Diet is grounded on the principles of enjoyment and pleasure. Foods, drinks and meals are especially enjoyable if eaten with others, when possible, and savored. There are a number of studies showing that kids who eat dinner regularly with their families do better in school, etc.
For some healthy Mediterranean-inspired recipes and menus, visit Eating Well magazine. F
or more information and a detailed listing of the current studies supporting the health benefits of the Med Diet, please visit the Oldways site.
Danielle Omar, MS, RD