The Marvelous Mediterranean Diet

As a college student, I have noticed many college students and young twenty-somethings like myself think we are invincible. This is not the case, but consuming a healthful diet can help us to live longer.  As a college student studying nutrition and dietetics with plans of becoming a dietitian in the future, people tend to talk to me all the time about various diets. Some of the most common ones I have been asked about is the ketogenic diet, a gluten-free diet, and the Mediterranean diet as of lately. I figured I would explain what the Mediterranean diet is, it’s benefits, and who should consume a Mediterranean diet.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

A Mediterranean diet is a general name given to the eating habits typically found around countries that border the Mediterranean Sea1-4. This includes Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. A Mediterranean diet usually follows this makeup:

  • Daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, bread, and other grains1-4
  • Consumption of sweets is limited to a weekly basis1-4
  • Red meat is consumed on a monthly basis1-4
  • Olive oil is a common monosaturated fat source
  • Dairy products, fish, eggs and poultry are consumed on a weekly basis1-4
  • Wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts1-4

The following graphic illustrates what the diet and lifestyle of a person consuming a Mediterranean diet should look like.

Health Benefits

Daily consumption of the fruit, vegetables, grains, and such promotes a diet high in fiber as well as rich in vitamins in minerals.1-4 Limiting sweets to weekly consumption makes the diet low in refined sugars.1-4 Lowering refined sugar intake is helpful for losing weight and preventing obesity, reducing inflammation, reducing the risk of digestive conditions, as well as reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes.1-4 Limiting egg, poultry, fish, and sweets and significantly limiting red meat makes the diet low in saturated fats.1-4 Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol more than any other fat, which left untreated could cause heart attack or stroke.1-4 Olive oil, which is the primary fat source making the Mediterranean diet high in monosaturated fat.1-4 The predominant use of olive oil helps reduce harmful cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.1-4

There is some controversy regarding the fat content of the Mediterranean diet. One of the first points being that approximately 40% of the total energy of this diet comes from fats.1 This is much higher than the United States fat recommendations, which is 20-35%, with 35% reserved for a diet composes of “healthy fats.”1 The Mediterranean diet is composed of plant sterols that are healthier than the animal fats that make up a typical American diet.1 Plant sterols help reduce the risk of heart disease.1-4 Evidence currently suggests consumption of 2-3g of plant sterols, which help reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL)-cholesterol, which is the “bad” cholesterol, by about 5-10%.1-4 Plant sterols are isolated from plant oils, which are then used in salad dressing, milk, yogurts, and other items.1 A theory of how plant sterols work to lower cholesterol is that they block the absorption of dietary cholesterol but aren’t absorbed themselves.1

Other health benefits include preventing heart disease and strokes.1-4 Eating a diet lower in refined bread, processed foods and red meat in addition to consuming red wine as opposed to a hard liquor lessen risk factors.1-4 The Mediterranean diet also reduces risk of Alzheimer’s.1-4 There is research that suggests a Mediterranean diet improves cholesterol and blood sugar levels, potentially decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.1-4 The diet also dramatically lowers risk of Parkinson’s disease.1-4 High levels of antioxidants consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet helps prevent oxidative stress which damages cells.1-4

So, Who Should Consume a Mediterranean Diet?

  • Those at increased risk for cardiovascular disease or stroke1-4
  • This with a familial history of cardiovascular disease1-4
  • Those wanting to lose weight in a healthy manner1-4
    • A Mediterranean diet is not truly a diet; it’s a holistic lifestyle change1-4
  • People at risk of type-2 diabetes1-4
  • There are a lot of benefits to consuming a Mediterranean diet, so it could be argued all people could benefit by adopting some aspects of a Mediterranean-based diet

How to Eat a Mediterranean Diet

  • Consume more fruits and vegetables. Plan to eat around 7 to 10 servings a day of fruit and vegetables.1-4 Eating fruits and vegetables as snacks help consume this many servings. An apple or banana makes for a great snack when on the go to class or a job.
  • Select whole grains. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal, and pasta.1-4 Try other whole grains such as bulgur, farro, and quinoa. Quinoa is a personal favorite of mine, and you can even use it to make desserts.
  • Use healthy fats. Try olive oil as a replacement for butter when cooking.
  • Eat more seafood. Eat fish twice a week as they are rich in omega-3, which helps fight inflammation.1-4 Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, mackerel are healthy choices and happen to be some of the most common options found in restaurants.1-4 To keep these choices healthy, make sure to grill or bake opposed to frying.
  • Reduce red meat. Instead substitute fish, poultry, tofu, or beans for red meat.1-4 Some people that follow a Mediterranean diet prefer a vegetarian lifestyle and eliminate animal sources of protein in their entirety.
  • Enjoy some dairy. Low-fat Greek or plain yogurt options are encouraged, and cheese should only be eaten in small amounts.1-5
  • Use spices. The use of herbs and spices improve the flavor profile and lessen the need for salt. Personal favorites of mine include paprika, turmeric, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes.

A Day of Eating

Breakfast Whole-grain toast with a hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit

Snack Handful of pistachios

Lunch Lentil salad with roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and a balsamic vinaigrette

Snack Hummus with sliced red peppers and carrots to dip

Dinner Salmon with quinoa and sautéed greens with minced garlic

Consuming a Mediterranean diet tastes amazing from personal experience, and with the many health benefits, there isn’t much of a downside. Friends of mine that have consumed a Mediterranean inspired diet have told me they don’t see a reason ever to try any other “diet.” One last fun fact, two of the five blue zones (areas in the world where people live 90-100 years on average) are located in countries where the Mediterranean diet is commonplace. I hope you learned something and possibly even considering trying the Mediterranean diet out yourself!

References

  1. Thompson, J. L., Manore, M., & Vaughan, L. A. (2014). The science of nutrition. New York: Pearson.
  2. Mediterranean diet for heart health. (2019, June 21). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801.
  3. Diet Review: Mediterranean Diet. (2019, May 22). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/mediterranean-diet/.
  4. Eckel, R. H., Jakicic, J. M., Ard, J. D., de Jesus, J. M., Houston Miller, N., Hubbard, V. S., … American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. (2014, July 1). 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24239922?_ga=2.52718186.354792437.1573872754-2106889178.1573872754.
  5. Mediterranean Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/mediterranean-diet.

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