You have been hearing it everywhere, exuberant claims on the news, in magazines, and on Facebook: “Mediterranean diet will save your health and your life.”
As someone who is always a little skeptical of what people are trying to sell me... I was wondering, is the information true? Is the Mediterranean diet the best there is? Or is this just the next health craze eaten up by the masses? (no pun intended) As a non-greek working for a Greek company, this diet peaked my interest.
So I decided to look into this so-called “miracle diet” that took me from a quick google search to a deep dive into medical journals, to have a chat with a good friend and expert, Keely Agan, a nutritionist and farm to school coordinator in Vermont.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
To start, what is a diet? Merriam Webster dictionary defines a diet as the food and drinks regularly consumed, or habitual nourishment. In today’s culture, the word diet has the connotation of some unpleasant way to lose weight (Barb Leonard, n.d). According to Nutritionist and Farm to School Coordinator, Keely Agan: “the word diet is a problem for me because I find that when people limit themselves to ‘diets,’ they create standards that are too high, thus making their diet unsustainable.” Every adult I know has started one of those trendy diets, (like the master cleanse) and given up two weeks later, only to gain all the weight they lost back… and then some. So how is the Mediterranean diet different? According to Agan, the Mediterranean diet is more of a food lifestyle than the traditional thought of a diet, which includes calorie counting and restrictions. Inspiring some experts to ditch the word diet and call it an eating pattern instead (Boucher, 2017).
So what foods are part of this so-called - eating pattern. I had an idea (olives, greek yogurt, etc.) but I wanted to do research to find out more.
According to Nutritious Life “The Mediterranean Diet is inspired by the traditional diets of people who live around the Mediterranean sea, particularly in Greece and Southern Italy. It emphasizes plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, plenty of extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh fish” (n.d). This diet even allows you to eat some dairy and poultry as long as tons of veggies go with it. It traditionally also includes regularly drinking small amounts of alcohol; usually wine, and usually taken with dinner (Trichopoulou, Costacou, Bamia, Trichopoulos, 2003). I know what you are thinking! Wine on a diet? To this question, Keely answered, “Yes- red wine does have the antioxidant resveratrol but alcohol in large amounts can have a pro-oxidant effect...so a glass a couple times a week is your best bet!”
So to boil it down, NO processed food and a large number of fruits and veggies, legumes (nuts and beans), some dairy, fish, and a little bit of meat. After reading about what you can eat and looking at some recipes, I was pleasantly surprised that the things you CAN eat far outnumber the foods you cannot. After a quick Pinterest search, my mouth was watering from the delicious sounding dishes that could be made while on this diet (check out Tolmee’s Mediterranean Cooking Board on Pinterest).
Is the Mediterranean Diet really worth trying?
According to Keely Agan, “In all of my research, the Mediterranean diet is by far my favorite ‘diet’ and it is recommended by nutritionists across the world” (2018). In fact, the Mediterranean Diet came in first in Best Diets Overall by US News Health. But why are so many people recommending it?
Reason # 1: It is Good for your health
According to Keely, simply put, the Mediterranean diet is so good for you because it replaces unhealthy fats (such as butter) with plant-based fats like olive oil. It also cuts out most of the red meat and replaces it with fish - containing omega fats.
In countless research studies, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to decrease the risk for a whole host of health problems. The folks from Mayo Clinic said, “an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality. The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.”
In simpler terms: better heart health, less cancer, Parkinsons and Alzheimers, and reduced risk of breast cancers in women.
But it isn’t just good for your body. There are even studies that show it can improve mental health. In fact, after Spanish, British, and Australian researchers analyzed the findings of multiple studies, they found that people who strictly followed a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of being diagnosed with depression (CORDIS, 2018). Let’s be honest, we could all use some help with mental health these days!
With all these health benefits no wonder the experts are crazy about it. But what about the participants? Can you actually enjoy being on this diet? Or is the Mediterranean diet like so many others that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, craving salt & vinegar chips.
Reason # 2: The Food Tastes Great
The word on the street is that people actually enjoying the Mediterranean lifestyle! It doesn’t just include eating but also a love of sharing food with family and friends and an active lifestyle (Agan, personal communications, 2018). Erin Brodwin from Business Insider tried the diet and said “I never once felt like I was ‘dieting’ on the Mediterranean plan. That said, my goal wasn't weight loss — I was looking for improved energy levels and food that was filling and tasty. The Mediterranean diet accomplished both of those goals for me, so I'd like to stick with it.”
But why is this diet more satisfying than others? Keely Agan says the reason is “it is more like a food lifestyle that is super easy to follow. In a Mediterranean diet, you don’t restrict yourself from certain nutrients like protein, carbs or fat” (2018). According to the Olive Oil Producers at Gaea (n.d): “Not only can you look better and function better, but you can enjoy your food without all of the fuss of confusing diet regimens and number crunching! Maybe instead of calling it ‘The Mediterranean Diet,’ which has a negative connotation, we can call it ‘The Mediterranean Lifestyle.’ After all, it’s not a restrictive plan, but rather an expansive one.”
Overall I found an overwhelming amount of people saying that this diet was the way to go. Whole Foods even predicted that middle eastern and Mediterranean food will be the top culinary trend in 2018 because of the fresh and flavorful food it offers (Tyler,2018). All in all, it seems that Mediterranean food is not tasty and only good for your health, but also trending.
So is this just another fad diet? While the Mediterranean lifestyle is becoming mainstream, people have been interested in the Mediterranean diet for a long time; ever since the 1950’s, when Dr. Ancel Keys observed that people living in the Mediterranean region had lower rates of heart disease (Boucher, 2017). So for me, the answer is no, unless fads can last for almost 70 years!
I think that we can all agree when I say the worst part about eating “healthy” is the lack of taste and variety that often ensues. I love food, and the thought of eating a salad everyday horrifies me. The main selling point for me in all my research was that it all sounded delicious and doable.
In my non-expert opinion, I think that if you are looking for a healthier eating lifestyle that allows you to still enjoy your food, the Mediterranean diet is the one to try.
Heck, I even convinced myself; my partner and I will also be trying this diet (but maybe with a Sunday Mac & Cheese cheat day)!
To help me (and hopefully you) get started, I worked with Keely to create a handy rule sheet for the Mediterranean diet. I will be printing mine out and hanging it in my kitchen!
I also reached out to an excellent cook, as well as an actual Greek person, Mirsini Tzigizis for some ideas. She sent me an excellent recipe for Tzatziki with just greek yogurt, garlic, and dill sauce. You can put it on practically anything and it is delicious! I’ve been dipping carrots and celery in mine. Let us know how you like it!
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