The Mediterranean Diet: A Style Of Eating With Serious Clout

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Mediterranean Diet

Protect your heart and lose weight without sacrificing flavor.

In the great diet sweepstakes, an endless stream of diet competition, one style of eating has really pulled ahead particularly for women. The Mediterranean diet is proving itself to have serious clout when it comes to helping women re-size their bodies and stay healthy. It all started as a ‘heart thing‘ scientists observed that people living in the Mediterranean region experienced significantly lower heart disease than people in the United States. And naturally they wanted to know why. The way the people lived, especially what and how they ate, began to reveal clues.

Certain foods eaten in a certain pattern seemed to be the reason behind the heart-protection the people of the Mediterranean region enjoyed.

This diet pattern is one rich in certain foods and ingredients like olive oil and beans, fish and fresh produce, whole grains and nuts, along with moderate wine consumption with meals. Beyond a healthy heart, research has shown that the Mediterranean diet also confers diabetes protection, decreases stroke risk, lowers blood pressure and even wonderfully and surprisingly produces weight-loss. In fact, current studies are showing that the Mediterranean diet has significant effect in helping both men and women, but especially women, lose needed weight and maintain optimal health. It’s one thing to lose the weight and an entirely different one to keep it off this diet makes it easy.

Now a Mediterranean-style diet has risen to the top of the stack for women and with good reason, but many people aren’t sure what a Mediterranean diet looks like. It doesn’t have to be a foreign concept: you can Mediterranean-ize your own diet right here at home.

Recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that women following a Mediterranean diet lost more than twice as much weight than those following a low-carb diet (14 pounds versus 5 pounds) over the course of two years. The scientists wanted to measure the long-term weight and health effects comparing three common dietary approaches: a low-fat diet, an ‘Atkins-style’ low-carb diet, and a Mediterranean diet. And what about the women following the low-fat diet? They lost on average less than a single pound. Gone are those days of the low-fat diet (healthy) fat is back on the menu. And now there is evidence that you can lose weight eating favorites like olive oil, pasta, nuts, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables, in moderation of course.

The Mediterranean diet is as much about what is included as what is omitted.

Here are the special ingredients:

  • Olive oil (and other healthy oils) is a staple in the Mediterranean diet. And it may also be the replacement of less healthy oils high in saturated or trans-fats that makes the positive effect of this diet even greater. Diners beware though fats are calorically dense (about 120 calories per tablespoon) so too many fats of any kind can squeeze out room for other nutrient rich foods in a calorie-controlled, healthy-weight diet. The research suggests 3 tablespoons olive oil per day, which can easily be achieved by using olive oil for salad dressing, drizzling it on vegetables, and utilizing it as a cooking oil to spread and enhance flavor of proteins, or on vegetables and grains.
  • Vegetables and Fruits. They just continue to shine because they offer huge nutritional bang for the calorie buck. Vegetables and fruits contain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), phytochemicals like antioxidants, and a terrific water source they’re a slam dunk and no surprise that they feature prominently. They also add volume to the plate and research has shown that people are more satisfied and eat fewer calories overall when they have higher volume, lower calorie foods like veggies and fruits.
  • Nuts. Study after study show nuts are good for us. Nuts are full of heart healthy fats; they are filling and crunchy; and they’re portable. The only caution with nuts is to watch portions about 1-1.5 ounce per day. Because they are high in calories, their contribution in terms of volume needs to be consistent but limited. A handful a day of walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, or pistachios is a good general rule.
  • Fish in the diet has shown to help protect the heart and offer other health-promoting, disease fighting properties. Consuming heart-healthy fish like salmon or sardines can decrease inflammation, lower risk of heart disease and may help preserve healthy joints and a healthy brain as we age, too.
  • Beans are a terrific staple in the Mediterranean diet and the only food on the USDA MyPyramid that straddles two categories carbs and protein. Other research has shown that eating beans regularly may even help with weight loss. Plus they’re so versatile: toss them on salads, in or beside rice dishes, in pastas, as dips for vegetables, in casseroles and soups. And even canned, if they’re low in sodium and rinsed, they’re easy, inexpensive, and rich in nutrition.
  • Grains (cereals), specifically whole grains, have shown to confer health benefits from healthier Body Mass Index to better blood sugar control. In our fast-food, highly processed world, aim to eat mostly whole grains in moderation and limit refined grains for good health.
  • Herbs and spices are a prominent part of Mediterranean cuisine. In fact, the latest version of the Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid includes herbs and spices right next to their siblings, the fruits and vegetables, near the base of the pyramid. Long treasured for their flavor, spices and herbs are now also being recognized as important sources of natural antioxidants. And they are used liberally both in fresh and dried forms in Mediterranean cuisine, including oregano, basil, garlic, and thyme and many others.
  • Wine (alcohol) sounds sexy to include on a diet, but it’s really the familiar message you’ve heard with one twist. In the Mediterranean diet, wine is consumed typically with the meal and often in the company of others, socially. And the health benefits are seen with less than 1 glass daily for women and less than 2 glasses for men. One of the predictors of long life, too, is having a good social support system and happy life drinking a glass of wine (or alcohol) with family and friends at a meal is one of those instances which may also contribute to this outcome.

Ultimately, the Mediterranean Diet is one that encompasses the total diet, including at its core those whole fresh foods that give us nutrition, energy and flavor while also protecting our health. But it’s also so much more: it’s an eating style that celebrates not one food or nutrient, but the melding and synergy of many, as we enjoy good food in the company of good friends and family, too. Salute to your health!

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Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD

Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian, American College of Sports Medicine certified Exercise Physiologist and freelance writer in San Diego. She is an expert advisor to the spa industry and co-owns Bazilian’s Health Clinic with her husband and business partner, Dr. Jason Bazilian. Dr. Wendy is co-author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean (Rodale, 2015) and author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale). Find her onFacebook and Twitter

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