I talk often in the blog about how food is the pinnacle of any lifestyle, fitness or health program. Whether you’re trying to improve your appearance, get physically fit, improve biological functions, extend your life, combat chronic disease, or even just be a little healthier, it starts with what you eat. But with an abundance of information at our fingertips, and a new viral diet every other year, it’s hard to know what you really should be eating.
Some people advocate for veganism—but then you read somewhere else that you need to eat more complete proteins, which is difficult on an entirely plant based diet. And aren’t pasta and bread horrible for you? Then you have the friend who swears by keto, and he’s been eating cheese, beef, and eggs every day for the past year. And he swears he feels great! Hell, he looks great too.
So you decide to take matters into your own hands. You research the plant based diet first and find that every article you read advocates for it. Then you decide to look at keto, just to be safe and find the same thing—every article is telling you why you need to make the switch today.
So what should you do? Aren’t the two diets basically the opposite of each other? Which one is right? How can the world have such opposing views on what is the best direction for your health?
Honestly, even working in this industry I find myself going down the rabbit hole once in a while second guessing whether the new diet really is worth some consideration.
Truth be told, whatever diet you choose to advocate for, you will find resources to support it. However, based on all of the data we have available to us, there is one diet that is the heavily supported by clinical research, and we are going to go through it in detail in this article.
What is the healthiest diet?
While there are many nuisances to this topic, when we look at the body of evidence and what that research tells us, there is one diet that consistently has been supported by clinical research, and that diet is (drumroll, please)…the mediterranean diet.
Note that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are observed when it is treated as lifestyle, not a short term “diet” by conventional terms. Therefore, I highly encourage you to adopt the Mediterranean lifestyle as best you can.
Keep in mind, this diet is one of the most flexible and delicious plans out there, so in theory, it should not be too challenging to implement for the long run. This is the “diet” I personally, choose to live by.
How do we know the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest option?
Research has uncovered that Mediterranean populations (particularly those in Crete, Greece and Southern Italy) have a lower incidence of chronic diseases and longer life expectancy compared to other global populations. These findings led scientists to further explore these regions, one of the most famous being the Seven Countries studies which explored the relationship between lifestyle, disease risk, and healthy aging. But series of other investigations emerged that confirmed that these populations were doing something right, for instance the famously referenced Blue Zones found more evident correlations between the populations who live the longest and their lifestyle.
More on the Blue Zones
Blue Zones are regions of the world where people are reported to live longer and healthier lives compared to the global average. These regions were first identified by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, who studied the lifestyles and diets of people in these regions. There are currently five blue zones that have been identified:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Icaria, Greece
- Loma Linda, California, USA
In these regions, people typically live to be over 100 years old and experience lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Researchers have attributed the longevity and good health of people in these regions to various factors, including: diet, physical activity, social connection and stress management.
By studying the lifestyles and diets of people in blue zones, researchers have gained valuable insights into the factors that contribute to good health and longevity, and have used this information to develop health-promoting strategies for people around the world. And low and behold, these findings support adherence to a mediterranean diet.
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
More and more research has gone into validating the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, and to-date it is the diet with the greatest body of evidence behind it. For example, further research has found the Mediterranean diet to “significantly improve health status” by offering the following benefits:
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease: Many studies have found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
- Improved Cognitive Function: Studies suggest that following the Mediterranean diet may help to improve cognitive function, particularly in older adults and prevent cognitive decline and the development of Parkinson’s and Altzhemier’s disease.
- Lowered Risk of Cancer: Observational studies have shown that following the Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
- Improved Sleep Quality: Research has found a relationship between Mediterranean diet adherence and longer sleep duration and quality.
- Better Blood Sugar Control: Research has suggested that following the Mediterranean diet may help to improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.
- Improved Weight Management: Some studies have found that following the Mediterranean diet can help with weight loss and weight management.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a dietary pattern based on the traditional eating habits of people living in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and Morocco. The diet emphasizes the consumption of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as healthy fats, such as olive oil and fatty fish. It also includes moderate amounts of dairy products, poultry, and eggs, and limited amounts of red meat and sweets.
The Mediterranean diet has been associated with numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improved cognitive function, and better weight management. This is likely due to the high consumption of nutrient-dense foods and the relatively low intake of processed and high-calorie foods.
Here are some key principles of the Mediterranean diet:
- Emphasis on Plant-Based Foods: The diet emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Plants are eaten with every meal.
- Healthy Fats: The diet includes high intakes from healthy fats from sources such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish. For instance, olive oil is present in most meals of the day.
- Moderate Consumption of Dairy, Poultry, Eggs, and Red Wine: The diet includes moderate amounts of dairy products, poultry, and red wine.
- Limited Red Meat and Sweets: The diet limits the consumption of red meat, eggs, and sweets.
- Minimal Processed Foods: The Mediterranean diet involves eliminating heavily processed foods.
- Enjoyment of Meals: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the enjoyment of meals with family and friends, and the inclusion of leisurely physical activity, such as walking, as part of the lifestyle.
What you can eat on the Mediterranean diet:
There is some ambiguity surrounding the Mediterranean diet and what exactly you can eat on it but here is what the most recent research has found the Mediterranean diet to include on a given day:
- 7 to 13 servings of bread, cereals or flour
- 2 to 9 servings of vegetables
- 4-8 servings of olive oil
- 1.5 servings of potato
- 0.5 to 2 servings of fruit
- 1 serving of non-cheese dairy
- 1 serving of nuts
- 0.5 servings of cheese
- 0.5 – 0.75 servings of meat
Additionally, the diet includes:
- 3 servings of legumes and fish per week
- moderate red wine consumption up to one glass daily
What is not allowed on the Mediterranean diet:
Because the Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle than a “diet,” it is not restrictive. You can still enjoy the foods you love in moderation. However, if you are transitioning from a western diet, you will likely need to cut back on dairy, poultry and eggs, and focus on incorporating more whole plant-based foods into your diet. You should also avoid highly processed foods and save sweets and red meat for rare and special occasions.
What are the main foods in the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is characterized by an emphasis on plant-based foods, healthy fats, and moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, and fish. Here are some of the main foods that are commonly consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet:
- Fruits: A wide variety of fruits are consumed, including apples, oranges, grapes, and pomegranates.
- Vegetables: A variety of vegetables are consumed, including leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
- Whole Grains: Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread are consumed in moderation.
- Legumes: Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans are a major part of the Mediterranean diet.
- Nuts and Seeds: Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pistachios, and seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds are consumed in moderation.
- Olive Oil: Olive oil is the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet and is used for cooking and dressing salads.
- Fish and Seafood: Fish and seafood, such as salmon, tuna, and shrimp, are consumed several times a week.
- Dairy Products: Yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are consumed in moderation.
- Poultry: Poultry, such as chicken and turkey, are consumed in moderation.
- Red Wine: Red wine is consumed in moderation with meals, as it contains antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
The Mediterranean diet is based on whole, unprocessed foods, and emphasizes the consumption of nutrient-dense foods while limiting processed and high-calorie foods.
How to implement the Mediterranean diet
Implementing the Mediterranean diet can be a simple and enjoyable process. You don’t have to eliminate things from your diet, instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on what you should enrich your diet with (primarily, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.) Here are some steps you can take to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle:
- Emphasize plant-based foods: Make sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in your meals. Aim to make half of your plate filled with non-starchy vegetables.
- Use healthy fats: Use healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, and nuts in your meals instead of unhealthy fats like butter and margarine.
- Include fish and seafood: Incorporate fish and seafood into your meals at least twice a week. Choose fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Limit red meat: Limit your consumption of red meat to a few times a month, and opt for lean cuts.
- Use herbs and spices: Use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your meals.
- Enjoy meals with others: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the importance of sharing meals with family and friends. Enjoy meals together and make it a social experience.
- Choose whole foods: Avoid processed foods and choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.
- Drink red wine in moderation: Red wine contains antioxidants and other beneficial compounds, so enjoy it in moderation with meals.
By making small changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can easily incorporate the principles of the Mediterranean diet and enjoy the many health benefits that come with it.
Disclaimer: I am a certified nutrition coach and personal trainer, not a registered dietician or physician. The information in this post are meant to be for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Please consult a licensed professional for specific medical advice.