The Mediterranean Diet
What comes to mind when you think of Mediterranean food? For me, I envision produce of every color, dripping with flavor. I think of ocean fresh seafood, juicy, plump olives and fragrant herbs. For years now, the Mediterranean way of eating has been making headlines for promoting good health and longevity. It seems our friends across the ocean know something about eating in a way that is intuitive, delicious and much healthier than the common western diet. If your goal is health and longevity, the Mediterranean diet is one that you should consider. Let me tell you why.
The Mediterranean Sea is a body of water that is connected to the Atlantic Ocean and nearly entirely surrounded by land. Although many people associate the Mediterranean diet with the country of Greece, we are actually referring to the foods and dietary habits of all the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Monaco, Turkey, Morocco and Israel among many others.
The climate of this region is mild, with summers that are pleasantly warm and dry and winters that are mild and wet. This climate is perfect for growing an incredible variety of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. The region is also rich in grain production and has access to abundant fresh fish and seafood. These bountiful elements are the components of the Mediterranean diet.
Research that has been conducted on the average life expectancy in different countries around the world shows us that among countries with the longest living citizens, many of them are in the Mediterranean region. For example, Monaco’s average life expectancy is nearly 90 years old, with Italy, Greece, France and Spain also boasting average life expectancies somewhere in the eighties. What about the United States? The estimated life expectancy for the average U.S. Citizen falls quite short compared to our Mediterranean counterparts, coming in at 78 years of age, more than an entire decade less than the life expectancy for the citizens of Monaco.
Looking at these numbers makes us ask “what is the difference?”. What are they doing differently and what can we learn from them in order to live longer, healthier lives? There are several aspects of their daily life that contribute to their longevity, such as a generally slower pace of daily life, greater social connections, more physically activity and more time spent enjoying the outdoors. However, the one thing that really makes an impact in their health and quality of life is the way that they eat. With this knowledge, the Mediterranean diet became standard model of healthy eating and has gained much popularity in health-conscious communities. You have probably heard about it, you may have even tried it. Either way, I would like to help you learn more about the Mediterranean diet.
There is actually a “food pyramid” designed around the Mediterranean diet. While I am unsure of its original source, the concept is brilliant. At the bottom of the pyramid, otherwise known as the base or foundation, is a section that doesn’t have anything to do with the diet at all. Instead, the foundation of the Mediterranean diet is to be physically active, to engage and enjoy the company of others, to share meals with other people, even if they are strangers and to spend time doing things that you love. Does it get any better than this? Yes, as a matter of fact it does.
The next largest grouping on the pyramid contains foods that come from the earth. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and herbs make up the bulk of the Mediterranean diet. It is estimated that the average person in the Mediterranean region eats upwards of nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Considering that many of us struggle to get in just half that amount, the Mediterranean style of eating is one to aspire to.
In the middle of the pyramid is fresh seafood and fish, with the recommendation of 4-5 servings per week. At the very top of the pyramid is chicken, poultry and red meat. Did you catch that? Red meat is the top of the pyramid, sharing space with sweets, and being listed as an occasional food. This is in stark contrast to the western diet where red meat, processed grains and sugar are the standard fare that take up the largest portions on the average dinner plate. The Mediterranean diet shows us that there is room for improvement and that making those changes will allow us to become healthier and benefit from a higher quality of life in the process.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t just about living longer or losing a few pounds. This style of eating is also about the opportunity to heal our bodies from many of the common chronic illness that we suffer from today. It is about respecting our bodies and preventing them from further damage. It is also about honoring ourselves and a commitment to self-care by fueling the body with healthiest and most nutrient dense foods that are available. Here are just a few of the many benefits of a Mediterranean style diet.
- Reduction in Cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Lower incidence of type II diabetes
- Natural weight loss
- Reduced risk of Parkinson’s Disease
- Prevention of cognitive decline
- Contribution to less stress and better sleep habits
- Lessened occurrence of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Lower incidence of all cancers
- Sustained mental and physical agility
- Increased longevity
One thing that prevents many people from adopting a Mediterranean style of eating is the idea that it is simply too expensive. This is actually a myth. Yes, there are components of the diet that can be costly, such as fresh seafood, the best olive oil and luscious red wine. However, these components are limited and they do not actually need to be included at all. The foundation of the diet is rich in fresh produce, whole grains and legumes. When compared to some of the processed foods which are high in fat, sugar and sodium that make their way to our tables, the Mediterranean diet costs much less in terms of both money and negative effects on your health.
If you are interested in adopting a Mediterranean style of eating, there are just a few simple points to keep in mind. First, your conversion to the Mediterranean diet does not need to be complicated or expensive. The plan itself is very straightforward and intuitive. Here are some of the key points of the diet and how to implement them into your daily life.
- If you eat meat every day or even at every meal, allow yourself to slowly decrease the amount that eat during the week. Start by choosing one or two days a week to go completely meatless. “Meatless Mondays” are a popular theme right now and you can find plenty of delicious ideas for non-meat meals that even the most devoted carnivore will enjoy.
- Once you have cut down on the amount of meat that you consume, try replacing the red meat that you eat with fresh fish and seafood.
- Stock up on seasonal, fresh produce. Those in the Mediterranean region have year-round access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Depending on where you live, you might not have the same luxury, but you should take advantage of local harvests whenever you can. Make produce shopping an experience by visiting local farmer’s markets and small specialty produce markets.
- When you head to the grocery store, always shop the produce section first. The more room in your cart that is filled up with fresh fruits and vegetables, the less room you will have for unhealthy processed foods.
- Find new ways to enjoy more vegetables. Make homemade pizza, but instead of pepperoni, pile it high with your favorite vegetables. With the right ingredients, you can sink your teeth into a hearty, filling vegetable sandwich just as easily as you can one overloaded with pastrami.
- Eat breakfast every day, no matter what. Fill up on fiber rich, nutrient dense foods and add some protein for good measure.
- Replace butter and unhealthy cooking fats with healthier options such as olive oil.
- Include other sources of good fats, such as avocados, olives, seeds and unsalted nuts, into your diet daily.
- Cut back on salt and processed foods that are high in sodium. Use fresh herbs and ground spices, instead of salt, to add character and flavor to your dishes.
- Go easy on the dairy. Choose high quality, unsweetened yogurt and cheeses from the Mediterranean region such as goat cheese, parmesan cheese, ricotta, feta and pecorino.
- Treat yourself to a glass of red wine. One glass of red wine a day has been shown to be beneficial to your health. Why not make it a special treat by splurging on your favorite bottle and sharing with others. Do not drink red wine just for the sake of drinking it. Find one that you adore and drink it for the pleasure of the experience. Remember, one glass a day is good. Three glasses are not. Moderation is key.
- Enjoy fresh fruit for dessert. Are there decadent pastries and sweet treats to be found in the Mediterranean region? Absolutely. Do people of the region enjoy dessert nearly every day? Yes. However, the decadent treats are saved for special occasions while the luscious natural sweetness of fresh fruit is enjoyed more regularly. Stuff fresh figs with a little goat cheese and drizzle them with honey or make your own fresh berry sorbet. Or, enjoy the beautiful simplicity of a piece of perfectly ripened fruit all on its own.
One of the keys to longevity is to adopt a simpler, more natural approach to eating. While the Mediterranean diet has gained popularity in recent years, there really isn’t much to the concept that we aren’t already aware of. Turning to nature, rather than factories, for nourishment is a move that is important for the health of our bodies and for the earth. A diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, rich in healthy proteins and naturally derived, heart-healthy fats is one that should be intuitive to our nature. In the western world, we have come to rely on convenience rather than listening to what our bodies are telling us that they need. The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating that can help us become more aware of what the body needs and how to go about fueling it.
I encourage you to add more elements of the Mediterranean diet to your life, especially the components that make up the bottom of the pyramid that was mentioned earlier. Sharing meals, sharing life and engaging with others is important to all of us. A sense of community, a sense of belonging and a sense of humor are essential if you want to live a long, healthy life. Embrace the romance of a Mediterranean lifestyle just as much as you do the foods, and you will have a life that is rich in all the things that really matter.