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The Mediterranean Diet: A Delicious Path to Health

If only there was a delicious way to eat healthy that allowed things like wine, cheese, and oils. The good news is, there is! The Mediterranean Diet is based on a tried-and-true set of ingredients and cooking styles enjoyed by some of the healthiest people in the world.

Here we’ll look at what makes the Mediterranean special, what you can learn from their diet no matter where you live, and one or two things that you might want to consider beyond just what they eat and how they cook it.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

Unlike some other name diets you may have heard of like The Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet, the Mediterranean Diet isn’t a business. No one person owns it and there is no single rulebook. Rather, it can be seen as a culinary mindset. There’s nothing to subscribe to, nothing to buy, just a little to learn and a lot to experiment with.

What Sets This Diet Apart?

There are a lot of fad diets out there. Some might have their benefits for weight loss or muscle gain, but they usually come with a harsh tradeoff. Eliminating all fiber and carbs or counting every calory can take a mental and a physical toll. This diet has none of that.

That also means that it has few of the immediate benefits. The logic here is that this diet very well may be better than the diet that you have now – provided that you’re following the typical “western diet”. If that’s the case for you, you might lose some weight initially or find a bit more energy, but this isn’t billed as a drastic weight loss diet.

Where Does the Mediterranean Diet Come From?

The Mediterranean Diet is named after the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Europe from Africa. Why the Mediterranean instead of some other sea? Look at it this way:

For the last few decades, researchers have been looking into “Blue Zones” – areas of the world where people regularly live to be at least one hundred years old. Of the five originally identified Blue Zones, two (Ikaria and Sardinia) are located in the Mediterranean Sea.

That’s one of the reasons that the diet has so much wiggle room. Ikaria in Greece and Sardinia in Italy don’t have exactly the same diet. And the diet doesn’t necessarily operate under the assumption that the people of Sardinia or Ikaria necessarily have better diets than the people of other Mediterranean locations like Marseille, Barcelona, Alexandria, or Algiers.

Further, researchers are aware that there’s a lot more to the longevity of Blue Zone residents than just what they eat. For example, people in these locations tend to remain active well into advanced age. Researchers are also looking into cultural and psychological components that may play a role. But, diet isn’t a bad place to start.

What Can I Eat?

Again, there is no single Mediterranean Diet and no set number of recipes. Rather, the idea is to rethink the food groups. For the sake of this diet, there are nine:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits and nuts
  • Beans
  • Dairy
  • Oils
  • Grains
  • (White) Meat
  • Fish
  • Alcohol

Eating the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet can feel pretty different from the kind of diet that most readers are used to. That’s why it works and it can be a big part of the fun. It can also be a little intimidating at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s take it slow.

Protein on the Mediterranean Diet

In the Mediterranean Diet, protein’s two main players are fish and meat – usually white meat like chicken and pork. Of course, protein also comes along with nuts, beans, dairy, and grains, so there’s easily enough to support the most athletic of lifestyles.

Fish and white meat have one immediate benefit over red meat, and that’s how lean it is. White meats typically have significantly less fat content than red meat. Of course, some cuts of white meat, like some cuts of pork, can be pretty fatty so try to keep these to a minimum.

We have to think too about preparation. Grilling and baking are both common protein preparation methods in the Mediterranean Diet. Both of these help to reduce unhealthy fat by allowing it to cook off of the meat. Compare that to how so many of us tend to eat chicken and fish – fried: a method that literally adds fat.

Fish and seafood also contain essential oils and vitamins that are hard to find in other protein sources. These help your body function of course, but they’re also closely tied to mental health – which is a significant concern for people on the quest for bodily longevity.

Rethinking Fats and Sugars

The Mediterranean Diet features a couple of food groups that a lot of diets leave behind, namely oils and fruits. But, there are ways that they can play an important role in a well-balanced diet.

A lot of diets can be anti-fruit because fruits are relatively high in sugars. However, when you eat fruit, a lot of good-for-you nutrients come along for the ride including vitamins and fiber. Remember, though, that juice -even fresh juice – has a drastically different nutrient balance. It can include all of the sugar and a fraction of the fiber.

You may also notice that “sugar” doesn’t get its own category in the Mediterranean Diet. “Sweets” as we tend to think of them aren’t really part of the deal. Instead, your desert might be a mix of fruit and nuts.

The Mediterranean Diet also features oils, but that usually means olive oil. But wait, aren’t oils a kind of fat? Don’t we want to avoid fat? Yes and no.

Oils are a kind of fat. However, not all fats are created equal. Fats that are a liquid at room temperature (like olive oil) have health benefits while fats that are solid at room temperature (like animal fats and some artificially altered oils) can be damaging to your liver, heart, and vascular system.

There’s also a lot to be said for how oils factor in. For example,they’re more likely to be the base of a dressing than they are to be a cooking medium. Think tossing a salad lightly in oil rather than frying your fish and chicken in it.

Alcohol, You Say?

Yes, alcohol is a food group in the Mediterranean diet – typically wine. But, alcohol is bad for you, isn’t it? That depends on the type and the quantity.

Alcoholic beverages with a lower proof can actually be very good for you in moderation. Wine, particularly red wine, has long been touted for its antioxidants and beer contains prebiotics that can help promote a healthy gut microbiome. 

As you get into the stronger alcohols, the harmful effects of alcohol go up and the benefits go down. Keep in mind too that a lot of popular alcoholic drinks these days can contain a lot of added sugars.

Don’t drink? Don’t start just for the sake of the Mediterranean Diet. If you’re comfortable with non-alcoholic beers and wines (I don’t care what your A.A sponsor says, a Heineken 0.0 has less alcohol content than the apple in the back of your fridge) are a solid option. If that’s not your speed, consider non-alcoholic fermented beverages like kombucha – but watch those for sugars.

Following the Rules

There are no rules. You can dive deeper into the diet and culture, or you can take what you like and leave the rest. If all you take away from this article is that white meat is healthier than red meat or that oil is better than fat, that’s not nothing. No one is looking over your shoulder to make sure that you’re doing everything right.

If you do want to “go by the book,” knock yourself out with some more research – this is just a brief introduction. For example, there are a very specific set of vegetables associated with this diet. There are very specific recipes on how to make and eat your fish and chicken. We didn’t really dive into those things here and you don’t have to. But, more power to you if you do.

Tell Me More

There is more to the theory of the Mediterranean Blue Zones than just what they eat. We mentioned above that maintaining physical activity is a big part of the picture. Researchers also think that people in the Mediterranean region might have a more grounded and less stressful approach to life (maybe that glass of wine at the end of the day helps).

If you’re here because you’re a regular reader of HTBM, chances are that you already have more than a little physical activity in your schedule. If you’re here to learn about the diet rather than how to bulk muscle, that’s fine. You can consider more natural forms of activity, like walking and gardening.

Is the Mediterranean Diet Right for You?

It’s our typical procedure to suggest that you talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program or diet regime. However, there’s not anything extreme in the Mediterranean diet. And it’s versatile enough that even people with dietary restrictions like gluten intolerance or meat aversion can navigate the diet without those elements if they want to or need to.

If you want to talk to your doctor about starting the Mediterranean Diet, we’ll never try to talk you out of it. But, you should be able to feel comfortable easing into it no matter what your age or health situation may be.

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