Understanding the Mediterranean Diet

Understanding the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is somewhat unusual - simply because it is a popular diet idea that has been subject to relatively little controversy. In fact, there has been considerable research into this diet and lifestyle approach, with many studies finding considerable benefits. 

Unlike most diets, this eating approach is mostly promoted as a way to eat healthy and lower heart disease risk - rather than as a method to lose weight. But, it is still a powerful approach and can help you lose weight as well. 

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Basically, the term Mediterranean diet refers to the traditional eating habits of people in the Mediterranean region. This covers a range of individual locations, each of which has their own variations. 

But, the general principles of the Mediterranean diet can be viewed as follows:

  • Consume mostly: Vegetables, fruits (including figs), legumes, nuts, whole grains, bread, whole grain pasta, fish, extra virgin olive oil
  • Consume in moderation: chicken, cheese, yogurt, red wine and eggs
  • Consume rarely: red meat
  • Avoid: Added sugars, processed foods, refined grains and highly refined oils (e.g. canola oil), sugar-sweetened drinks (including fruit juice)

The end result is a whole-foods diet that has a strong focus on vegetables, fish and lean meat. This approach is dramatically different than Western eating patterns and it also varies from low-carb and paleo-style diets.

The differences between locations mean that the principles above don't always remain the same - and some people choose to add or remove various foods from the diet.

The approach is flexible, so you can adjust it to your own preferences and needs. However, one common mistake is to focus too much on components like cheese, pasta and bread, while not consuming enough vegetables. Realistically, the Mediterranean is a strongly plant-based diet and veering from that idea too much will reduce the potential for health benefits. 

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Attention focused on the Mediterranean diet because Mediterranean countries tend to have relatively low rates of heart disease compared to the United States. As a result, the diet has been researched extensively. For example, a 2013 study tested the following three diet types:

  • Mediterranean (with added nuts)
  • Mediterranean (with added olive oil)
  • Low fat diet (the control)

Both versions of the Mediterranean diet had similar results and led to a significant decrease in the risk of stroke, heart attacks and death from heart disease. 

The study itself is also impressive, as it involved more than 7,000 participants and was conducted for almost 5 years. That length isn't unusual for an observational study. But, it was an experimental design - making the results especially robust.

A similar study using the same general data set found that the Mediterranean diet reduced the prevalence of metabolic syndrome - although the results were only statistically significant for the nuts variation (1).

Likewise, the Mediterranean diet decreased oxidized LDL levels. This time, the strongest effects were for the extra virgin olive oil variation (2). Both variations offered improvements to a range of cardiovascular risk factors (3) and decreased type 2 diabetes risk (4).

Other studies have confirmed some of these effects. This includes showing that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduced the risk of a heart attack or death from heart disease (5). In this case, the diet was also supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. 

Likewise, the diet approach lowers markers of inflammation (6), reduces the prevalence of metabolic syndrome (7) and improves heart disease risk factors (8). The Mediterranean diet may better for weight loss versus a conventional low-fat diet (9,10,11).

Collectively, these studies show that the Mediterranean diet offers health benefits, especially in the area of heart health. The research has also been longer-term and more powerful than with many other diet types.

The site Authority Nutrition also has a more detailed post on the outcomes of individual research studies, including some that I didn't highlight here.

Challenges with the Mediterranean Diet 

The Mediterranean diet does offer significant benefits, but there are also complexities to consider. As mentioned before, one challenge is that there isn't a single Mediterranean diet. Instead, there are countless variations. This includes differences in the foods consumed, quantities and timing.  

For example, some variations eat much more red meat (including lamb) than what we tend to consider in the Mediterranean diet. That approach may still offer many health benefits, although experimental studies have tended to involve versions that are relatively low in meat.

To make matters worse, it isn't clear which aspects of the Mediterranean diet offer health benefits. Instead, most studies have focused on the diet as a whole. As a result, some components of the diet may promote health while others may have the opposite effect. For example, many people don't like the Mediterranean diet because of the carb content.

This pattern also makes it difficult to maximize benefits from the diet. In fact, many Mediterranean cookbooks emphasize festive and celebration foods, rather than regular Mediterranean meals. To get around this, you may still need to play close attention to the calories you consume and make sure you're not over-indulging on ingredients like pasta and bread. 

Sauce tomato for mediterranean diet

One final aspect is that the diet is fairly general. This means there is typically little information about the exact quantities of food you should be consuming or whether there is an upper limit of fat or carbs. 

This area is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

On the positive side, the lack of specific rules helps people to develop a healthy relationship with food and creates a sustainable long-term lifestyle. 

But, some people struggle with this type of approach, especially if they're trying to lose weight. After all, it's harder to keep track of your success if there are no specific rules to follow. 

Personally, I think the Mediterranean diet is a good fit for many people. It's a perfect approach if you want to enjoy food without being afraid of it. Likewise, the diet works well in the long-term, while restrictive approaches can be more difficult to stick to. 

Beyond all of this, the Mediterranean diet is the best option for anyone aiming to be healthy without cutting out food groups. In contrast, many other popular approaches (like ketosis, low-carb and paleo) involve avoiding some foods (like grains) or dramatically lowering carb intake. 

So, the Mediterranean diet works well for pasta lovers and those who don't want or need something strict. 

Mediterranean Diet Resources

The Mediterranean diet isn't as hyped as approaches like the low-carb diet, paleo or ketosis. As a result, there are also fewer blogs and resources that emphasize it. However, there are still some powerful articles online that can help you learn more about the diet and what you can expect. 

The list below covers some of the best options, along with some blogs you can turn to as well. 

  • Lemon & Olives. This is a food blog, which specializes in authentic Greek recipes. The recipe selection here is different than what you'll find in many Mediterranean cookbooks - and it's worth looking at for that reason alone.
  • Olive Tomato. Like Lemon & Olives, this site has a strong focus on authentic information and recipes, rather than Westernized versions of Mediterranean recipes.
  • Mediterranean Diet 101 - from Authority Nutrition. This post is a great general introduction to the approach and offers a meal plan along with useful information about getting started.
  • 24 Mediterranean Diet Recipes - from Dr. Axe. This post is a powerful collection of recipes, along with images and descriptions to help you choose.

While there may not be that many blogs on the Mediterranean diet, there is a range of books out there. The examples below are the best choices currently available. There are other options as well but most of those tend to be poor quality or don't offer much useful information.

The Mediterranean Diet Plan

As the name suggests, this book partly acts as a guide to the Mediterranean diet - although it does offer recipes as well. 

The Mediterranean Table

This cookbook focuses on traditional cooking from multiple Mediterranean countries. There is also a strong emphasis on enjoying food and some amazing recipes.

The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook

The key advantage with this cookbook is that it offers 500 recipes, which is substantial.

Some of those recipes do take more prep work than you may like - but you're bound to find a few good ones in the mix.

Mediterranean Paleo Cooking

This book isn't Mediterranean in the usual sense. Instead, it uses Mediterranean principles for paleo meals. 

This results in a combination of the two diet types - offering the best of both worlds.

Mediterranean Diet Posts

The 5 Healthiest Olive Oil Brands You Can Buy Online
Olive oil can be great for health, as long as you are choosing quality olive oil to begin with. In this list, I show you which brands are worth seriously considering. We also cover two brands high in oleic acid which the FDA recently stated may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease when substituted for saturated fats in your diet.
Olive Oil and Diabetes: What’s the Connection?
The health benefits of olive oil cannot be overlooked - and recent research shows that these may extend to diabetes as well. So, how can olive oil help reduce your diabetes risk or help you manage the condition?
Memory and Even Attention Improved With This Popular Diet
The Mediterranean diet has a long history of being good for health but recent research suggests that these benefits may extend to cognition too. This post takes a look at that research and its implications.
Are Olive Oil and Inflammation Really Connected?
We've all heard about the health benefits that olive oil is supposed to offer. But, are those benefits just speculation or is there science to back them up?
What Are The Health Benefits of Olive Oil?
Olive oil has quite a reputation as being a good option for health, especially as part of a Mediterranean diet. But, what research is actually behind olive oil and is it really as good as people claim?
Is Olive Oil Actually Healthy or Not?
You've probably heard about olive oil and health, but does olive oil really offer substantial health benefits, or is a lot of that nothing more than hype?

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The Mediterranean Diet - How To Be Healthy