The Mediterranean diet in a nutshell
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
I have been translating nutrition-related content for 8 years now and if there is one thing I've learned, it's that the Mediterranean diet is the way to go. Numerous scientific sources confirm that the Mediterranean-style eating pattern is not only associated with vast health benefits but also contributes to longevity and balance*.
There is no doubt that dietary habits are something very personal - they highly depend on one's lifestyle, health status, cultural background and preferences but there is one (okay, three) feature(s) of the Mediterranean diet that can't be beaten: Flexibility, variety and the priviledge of choice!
The Mediterranean diet is all about combining different types of highly nutritious food. In contrast to other diets, it is less restrictive and it mainly focuses on the endless options of food you can choose from. Nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, bulgur, barley, rice, whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread (and flour) are an integral part of the Med-diet and are used as a main ingredient based on which you can create your very own meals depending on your preferences, your mood or your supplies. All you have to do is have an arsenal of healthy items at hand and let your creativity flow!
As the focus is on seasonal fruits and vegetables, following a Mediterranean diet gives you the chance to eat with the cycles of nature. Supporters of the traditional Med-diet always make sure to include seasonal produce in their meals. Refraining from highly processed frozen vegetables and fruit is a must, so you may want to avoid navigating the frozen food aisle next time you go to the supermarket (and yes, maybe avoid eating that triple chocolate brownie too). Go fresh - try to purchase seasonal products or go to your local farmers' market to find local and highly nutritious produce.
Variety is another asset of the Mediterranean way of eating. Having options and sharing meals with friends and family are a major cultural trait in all countries of the Mediterranean - that's probably why the mezze tradition still goes strong in Greece, Spain, Italy and Turkey. There is plenty of fish and other seafood to choose from, not to mention beans and legumes. You are also free to use herbs, spices, oils and vinegars to add an extra flavor to your meals. Herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme etc. as well as spices such as cumin, nutmeg, paprika and pepper promise to give your meals a little twist - you can't possibly get bored of that!
A huge controversy in the Mediterranean diet is the liberal use of olive oil. We have been taught to be skeptical towards olive oil and, frankly, most of us tend to believe that it's full of fats. How can such a diet be good for your health if olive oil is included - or even worse - if the use of olive oil is liberal?
While olive oil certainly contains a lot of fat, what we often forget is that what really matters is the quality of the fats in question. Fats found in virgin olive oil (not the saturated and trans fat hidden in processed food) add flavor and help our body fight diseases from diabetes to cancer. Virgin olive oil also helps lower bad cholesterol. It is also rich in antioxidants that are known to fight inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease.
But what do you really have to avoid? People who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern just have to avoid refined grains (e.g. white bread, white pasta etc.) as well as refined oils. Foods with added sugars, such as pastries, sodas, and candies should be also avoided. Same goes for drinks. Drinks and beverages with sweeteners are definitely a no-go. You can always go for a glass of red wine instead!
The Mediterranean diet is all about simplicity, variety and colours. While this diet may not be a cure, it can still be a way to improve your health and well-being in the long run.
And if you think what you put in your body doesn’t affect your soul, you may need to reconsider: According to a recent study, following a Mediterranean diet helps in reducing the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. After all, how can all these colours, smells and textures not make you smile while preparing your seasonal home made salad?
*According to the Seven Countries Study, people who follow a Mediterranean style eating pattern have low rates of heart disease, some types of cancers, and other chronic diseases, and their life expectancy is high. Olive oil helps protect agains heart disease by lowering blood-clotting factors, blood pressure and total as well as LDL cholesterol. According to another study carried out in 2015, the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet are attributed to the consumption of olive oil, fruits and vegetables. Individuals following such a diet had lower rates of CVD incidents and mortality.