Reviewed By: Casey Seiden MS, RD, CDN, CDE
When someone mentions they eat a Mediterranean diet, it can evoke a lot of alluring images— grazing on fresh olives and expensive cheeses while nursing a glass of red wine on the canal. Compared to more traditional ‘diets’ which count calories and dread the sight of an avocado or two, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t seem like much of a diet at all. However, there’s more than one reason to consider implementing this diet (besides dreams of your next two-week cruise vacation). Consistently ranked the Best Diet Overall, Best Plant-Based Diet, Best Diabetes Diet, and Easiest Diet to Follow by U.S. News & World Report, the Mediterranean diet is a solid framework we could all benefit from following. Here’s why and how.
The Mediterranean diet is a conglomeration of eating patterns seen in the various cultures that border the Mediterranean Sea. Although there’s a huge variety of cultural differences among these countries, there are some dietary patterns that are similar. This includes plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as grains, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like dairy and oils. Additionally, red meats are more often swapped out for protein sources like eggs, fish, and poultry. Sugar is most often found in fruits and breads rather than traditional dessert foods, and (a glass of) red wine is a common accompaniment to dinner. The Mediterranean diet became popular for its heart-healthy benefits— although, these benefits were discovered as more of a side-effect in societies around the Mediterranean Sea who live longer and healthier lives rather than being a methodical approach to eating healthy.
The Mediterranean diet has a lot going for it. By focusing on whole, unprocessed foods, you’re naturally eating a diet lower in saturated fat and added sugars. Colorful, fiber-rich fruits; vegetables and legumes, and omega-3-packed seafood are all foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components that are crucial for our cell functioning and overall health. Research and history have shown time and time again that eating in such a way promotes lifelong good health, fights cancers, lowers your risk for heart disease and diabetes, may help you maintain a more comfortable weight, leads to improved fertility, and can even impact your brain and mental health. Another plus is that by incorporating plenty of nuts, seeds, heart-healthy oils, and avocados, you likely will feel very full and satiated while following this diet, which is a bonus for any dieter who has felt unsatisfied after measly portions of food.
With all the health benefits listed above, it might seem as though there are no downsides or challenges when it comes to the Mediterranean diet. It’s true that not many downsides exist for the foods themselves; however, this diet might be a challenge for a “picky” eater. If you are someone who primarily eats animal protein or even red meat, then making the switch to plant-based sources of protein and non-red meats might prove frustrating and take some creativity in the kitchen to change your palate. Another population that might struggle when it comes to protein options is people suffering from IBS or digestive discomfort and are following a low-FODMAP diet. Beans and lentils can commonly cause excess gas and even abdominal pain for some, and so consuming this plant-based protein daily may not be ideal. But, rest assured that there are plenty of other more comfortable options to meet your protein needs.
So, how do you start eating like the Italians and Greeks? In our culture full of processed foods and traditional meat-and-potato diets, this can be a challenge. Like any new eating pattern, start small and slowly. If you’re a carnivore, try going “meatless” for one full day per week by creating meals based around vegetables, a whole grain, and some beans with loads of flavor from herbs and spices. To get in the 5 servings per day and feel full from vegetables, experiment with different cooking methods and flavors— try adding spinach and tomatoes to your morning eggs, make a pureed soup of cauliflower and chickpeas with fragrant herbs, and while you have the grill going for your salmon, grill up some eggplant, zucchini, and asparagus for a delicious dinner. You may also want to take a look in your cabinets and slowly start to replace your vegetable and canola oils with olive and avocado oils. Change your refined white rice for some farro and barley, and ditch some of the cookies in favor of dried and fresh fruits for desserts. Populations in Europe and parts of Africa have been eating a Mediterranean diet for centuries and have shown that this way of eating can be sustainable, so it’s really about finding ways to make it work for you and introducing small changes gradually.
More than any other diet, the Mediterranean diet comes with benefits for nearly anyone. For more help on how to create the right meal plans and shopping lists for your unique needs, meet with our nutritionist by calling our New York City office or filling out our online form.
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