What is the Mediterranean Diet? A Beginner’s Guide (see photo)

Written by Cristina Powell

Mediterranean Diet Plan

In case the word “diet” stopped you, let me start first with this disclaimer: While the Mediterranean Diet plan includes the word diet, it’s not really a “diet.” It’s more of a complete lifestyle—one derived from those who inhabit the various countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

The full focus of the Mediterranean Diet plan includes mindful eating and sound nutrition habits. There’s no counting calories or adjusting macros. And it’s easy to follow as well as consumer-friendly, though, it was never intended to be commercialized worldwide. But then it was found to be effective as a weight-loss tool, and it rose to become somewhat of a sensation in the 1990s.

Today, we’ll dive into what the Mediterranean diet is, the most common foods, its potential benefits, as well as the research behind it.

But a brief note before we get started: like most diets, the Mediterranean Diet may be adjusted to suit your individual needs and preferences. Thus, the meal plan itself is not written in stone. It can be adapted to meet your lifestyle and eating habits. If you have questions about this, please comment below, and we’ll gladly discuss how to go about making adjustments.

In addition, if you have been diagnosed with a disease or illness, or are under the care of a physician, we recommend that you obtain prior approval before making any changes to your diet or exercise program.

The Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid

Like the USDA Food Guide, the Mediterranean Diet starts with a food pyramid, albeit with a different arrangement:

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Quite simply, the Mediterranean Diet recommends:

  • a high intake of extra virgin (cold-pressed) olive oil, vegetables (e.g., leafy green vegetables), fruits, cereals, nuts, pulses/legumes;
  • a moderate intake of fish and other light meats, dairy products, and red wine;
  • and low intakes of eggs and sweets. 1
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The Mediterranean Diet Plan

These guidelines are generic, but here is the intent:

  • Compared to a traditional Western diet, the Mediterranean Diet is higher in fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins (e.g., folate), antioxidants, and minerals, and lower in sugars and refined starches
  • Whole, natural foods (with limited processed foods)
  • Seasonal, and when available, locally grown foods
  • Main sources of daily nutrition come from vegetables, fruits, beans, potatoes, nuts, seeds, breads, and other whole-grain products
  • Fats are made up of monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats (trans fats) over saturated fats (cholesterol) with olive oil being the predominant fat source
  • Dairy includes moderate amounts of cheeses and yogurt and < 4 eggs per week
  • Fish and poultry are suggested in low to moderate amounts
  • And there is only a minimal inclusion of red meat (about once a month)
  • Low to moderate amounts of red wine are suggested for adults–usually consumed with a meal

Exercise IS Part of the Mediterranean Diet Plan

Our traditional Western diet doesn’t include exercise as a requirement, although it is recommended. The Mediterranean Diet—remember, it’s more of a lifestyle—not only encourages eating healthy foods but also places a huge emphasis on being active. The guidelines suggest a minimum of 2 ½ hours of moderate aerobic activity per week and suggest exercises that bring up your heart rate and increase your breathing. This may be one of the reasons this meal plan has been used as a treatment plan for people who have been diagnosed with heart conditions as a heart-healthy option.

Some of you may be familiar with Bob Harper, the celebrity trainer, fitness guru, and host of The Biggest Loser. Mr. Harper recently suffered a cardiac arrest and has adopted a Mediterranean Diet to help aide in his recovery. Harper said he has been following a Mediterranean Diet since his hospitalization, which involves eating mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and peas, unrefined grains, olive oil, and fish. Meat, dairy, and saturated fats are eaten sparingly.

Numerous studies have linked the Mediterranean Diet to a lower risk of cardiovascular problems, as well as other health benefits. There is research to suggest that adhering to a Mediterranean Diet can not only cause weight loss and help prevent heart attacks, strokes, and type 2 diabetes, but it can improve your quality of life and help relieve depressive symptoms.3

Another health benefit appears to be its effect on healthy insulin levels. As we get older, our hormones may lose some of their ability to properly convert the food we eat into energy, which is critical in fueling our cells. When this occurs, several things can occur, one of these being insulin resistance, which can wreak havoc on one’s ability to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. To combat a sluggish metabolism and insulin resistance, we need to reevaluate our diet and discover ways to properly fuel our bodies. Research has shown a reduction in insulin resistance in people who are following a Mediterranean Diet.4

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By adjusting your diet and lifestyle, you can eat better, sleep better, have more energy, be sharper and more focused, not to mention at a lower risk for heart disease, some cancers, stroke, and dementia.5

Enter the “Blue Zone”

The “Blue Zone,” which includes five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the U.S., has been identified by researchers as having the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world.6 Their diets focus on the following:

  • Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
  • Eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially beans. And eat meat rarely, in small portions of 3 to 4 ounces. Blue Zoners eat these small portions just five times a month, on average.
  • Drink alcohol moderately and regularly; i.e., 1 – 2 glasses a day.

Sound familiar?

Dan Buettner has written several publications outlining just how impactful this way of life has been on the quality of life and longevity of the people living in these regions. The important thing to understand about what is different about the Blue Zone is the focus being on community and actively pursuing health and wellness. There is tremendous social support, and the community encourages and reinforces healthy behaviors.

I have always said how crucial social support is in allowing us to reach our own goals, as well as good nutrition, regular exercise, and stress management. The people living in these regions have turned these healthy habits into permanent behaviors, and it has allowed them to be among the healthiest people in the world, largely free of afflictions like heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.

Is the Mediterranean Diet Plan Right for You?

While eating healthy isn’t a new concept, learning which foods are effective in promoting optimal health, body composition, and performance for you as an individual may be something you haven’t quite mastered yet. There are various meal plans and diets circulating, and while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan, it is about discovering what is the most manageable and effective approach for you. The Mediterranean Diet is only one such approach.

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References

  • 1. Bach-Faig A, Berry EM, Lairon D, Reguant J, Trichopoulou A, Dernini S, Medina FX, Battino M, Belahsen R, Miranda G, Serra-Majem L. Mediterranean Diet Foundation Expert Group. “Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Science and cultural updates.” NCBI. PubMed, 2011 .
  • 2. Paoli A, Bianco A, Grimaldi KA, Lodi A, Bosco G. “Long term successful weight loss with a combination biphasic ketogenic Mediterranean Diet and Mediterranean Diet maintenance protocol.” MDPI. Nutrients, 2013, 5, 5205-5217.
  • 3. Veronese N, Stubbs B, Noale M, Solmi M, Luchini C, and Maggi S. “Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet is associated with better quality of life: data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative.” American Society for Nutrition, 2016.
  • 4. Park YM, Zhang J, Steck, Fung, Hazlett, Han Ko, Merchant. “Obesity mediates the association between Mediterranean Diet consumption and insulin resistance and inflammation in US adults.” NCBI. PubMed, 2017.
  • 5. Cederquist, Caroline. (2014). The MD Factor Diet: A Physician’s Proven Diet for Metabolism Correction and Healthy Weight Loss.
  • 6. Barclay, Eliza. “Eating to break 100: longevity diet tips from The Blue Zones.” NPR. The Salt, 2015
  • Ahmed

    What if I eat 1 egg a day? It’s a staple food here. And meat 8 – 10 times a month?

    • Cristina

      Greetings, Ahmed. Great question!

      I think it is important to keep in mind despite adhering to a particular meal plan or program, one must also be mindful of their own individual needs and nutrition requirements.

      While the guidelines may recommend a “limit” on how many times per week you should consume eggs, this is certainly not set in stone. Within this particular program, it mentions that the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle includes eggs less than 4 times per week, however if you are accustomed to consuming one egg per day and that is working for you, then why fix what isn’t broken?

      We have a recent free report that gets into the nitty gritty about eggs.

      There are several randomized controlled trials cited in the free report, and here’s the latest (most recently published) showing that an egg-based (3 eggs/day) lower carbohydrate (25% of calories) diet was superior to a standard carb-based diet (55% of calories):

      Effects of an Egg-based, Carbohydrate-restricted Diet on Body Composition, Fat Distribution, and Metabolic Health in Older Adults with Obesity: Preliminary results from a randomized controlled trial.

      After 8 weeks, the egg-based diet resulted greater fat loss (including more belly fat lost) and better retention of lean body mass and metabolic rate. On top of that, it led to greater improvements in blood lipids (cholesterol, triglycerides) and insulin sensitivity.

      Just some food for thought, Ahmed.