For decades, science has been touting the benefits of the famous Mediterranean diet, a diet that would have the power to prevent many ailments: heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancers, Alzheimer's, depression… Its virtues are generally attributed to antioxidants, including polyphenols in red wine and omega-3 in fish. But other scientific journals have also confirmed the benefits of fiber that are required in the Mediterranean diet for good cardiovascular health. So, are all these virtues of the Mediterranean diet real? Or is it just another diet that won't always work? Zoom on the Mediterranean diet.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The scientific community generally admits that people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and suffer less than most Europeans from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The secret, not so surprising in fact, is an active lifestyle, better weight control and a diet low in red meat, sugar and saturated fats but rather high in nuts and other healthy foods. The Mediterranean diet can offer a variety of health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control.
Following the Mediterranean diet is therefore a good way to maintain a healthy weight while avoiding chronic diseases. Moreover, the principle of this diet is simple:
- daily consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats;
- an adequate weekly intake of fish, poultry, beans and eggs;
- moderate portions of dairy products;
- and a limited intake of red meat.
In addition, following the Mediterranean diet also means sharing meals with family and friends, enjoying a good glass of red wine and above all practicing regular physical activity.
Mediterranean diet: how does it work?
You should know that the Mediterranean diet (or Cretan diet) is not a structured slimming diet : you are therefore free to determine how many calories you should consume to lose or maintain your weight. To do this, the Mediterranean food pyramid is a good base to start. It focuses on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil and tasty herbs and spices, fish and seafood as well as poultry, eggs and some dairy products.
The food basis of the Mediterranean diet
To date, there are no foods that belong specifically to the Mediterranean diet, in part because these vary widely from country to country. Nevertheless, it seems that the diets examined by most scientific studies are rich in healthy plant-based foods and relatively poor in animal foods. However, it is recommended to eat fish and seafood at least twice a week. In addition, the Mediterranean lifestyle also involves regular physical activity, sharing meals with other people and the pleasure of living.
Thus, following the Mediterranean diet involves basing your meals on the following foods:
- Vegetables: Tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers…
- Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches…
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds…
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, legumes, peanuts, chickpeas…
- Tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams…
- Whole grains: whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, whole grain bread and pasta.
- Fish and seafood: salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels…
- Poultry: Chicken, duck, turkey…
- Eggs: Chicken, quail and duck eggs.
- Dairy products: cheese, yogurt, Greek yogurt…
- Herbs and spices: garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper…
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and avocado oil.
On the drink side, it is better to bet on drinking water as part of a Mediterranean diet. You can also consume a moderate amount of red wine (1 to 2 glasses per day), coffee and tea. On the other hand, it is better to avoid sugary drinks and fruit juices, which are often very high in sugar.
Foods that are not part of a Cretan diet:
- foods and drinks with added sugar: soda, sweets, ice cream and many more;
- refined cereals: white bread, pasta made from refined wheat;
- trans fats in margarine and in various processed foods;
- refined oils: soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil;
- processed meat: processed sausages, hot dogs;
- highly processed foods: any food that is labelled "low-fat" or that appears to have been prepared in a factory.
Clearly, following the Mediterranean diet is above all:
- Bet on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil.
- Moderate poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt.
- Rarely eat red meat.
- Avoid sugary drinks, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils, and other prepared or highly processed foods.
The cost of a Mediterranean diet
As in most diets, the cost of the Mediterranean diet depends on how you shape it. While certain foods (olive oil, nuts, fish, and fresh produce in particular) can drive up the bill, there's always a way to control your budget, especially if you're replacing red meat with plant-based preparations. Moreover, the choice of the range of your food and drinks also counts: if you can not afford this bottle of wine at 50 euros, why not take one for 15 euros?
Is the Mediterranean diet effective for weight loss?
Scientists are unanimous: the Cretan diet is an effective alternative for weight loss. If some people fear that such a diet, rather rich in fats (olive oil, avocado, some cheeses) does not promote weight loss, more and more research argues that the opposite is true. Of course, the results depend on how you go about choosing your food. If, for example, you create a "calorie deficit" in your eating program (consume fewer calories than your recommended daily maximum) or burn more calories through sports, you should necessarily lose a few pounds.
A study published in 2018 in the American journal Nutrition & Diabetes analyzed in detail the eating habits of 32,119 Italian participants over an average of 12 years. The researchers concluded that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of weight gain and increased waist circumference. But the scientists behind the study also point out that this research has limitations and that further intervention studies are needed to confirm its findings.
In 2019, the journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology republished an updated analysis of data from Predimed, a five-year trial involving 5,859 adults with type 2 diabetes or at risk of cardiovascular disease, who were assigned a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil, the same diet supplemented with nuts or a control diet. Although the group with olive oil did not experience a statistically different result, people following the Mediterranean diet with nuts saw a difference in waist circumference over a five-year period.
In addition, a 2010 study on diabetes, obesity and metabolism assigned 259 overweight diabetics to one of three diets: a low-carb Mediterranean diet, a traditional Mediterranean diet, and a diet based on the recommendations of the American Diabetes Association. The researchers recommended that all groups exercise for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week. After one year, all groups lost weight:
- the group that followed the traditional Cretan diet lost on average about 7.25 kg;
- the group that followed the ADA's recommendations lost 7.71;
- and the group that followed a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet lost up to 10 kg.
Mediterranean diet: advantages and disadvantages
The Mediterranean diet provides multiple benefits due to the high intake of monounsaturated fatty acids (olive oil), the low intake of saturated fats, as well as its high fiber content:
- excellent intake of quality fatty acids;
- high in micronutrients, antioxidants and dietary fiber;
- protection against cellular aging and cardiovascular disease;
- no frustration or monotony throughout the diet;
- an easy-to-follow diet;
- a scheme compatible with an active social life;
- feelings of satiety brought by fiber and vegetable proteins.
However, the Mediterranean diet is also not a perfect diet. Already, it should be known that the Cretans and Greeks, who were the first peoples to adopt the Mediterranean diet, can enjoy the sun most of the year, which allows them to have a daily intake of vitamin D. Thus, the negative points of the Mediterranean diet, although few in number, are not negligible:
- decrease in the quality of food (heavy metals in fish, pesticides, etc.);
- a regime that requires an effort at cultural adaptation;
- a diet incompatible with red meat lovers;
- a diet that requires a little cooking.
Is the Mediterranean diet compatible with sport?
Of course, physical activity is essential with the Mediterranean diet, but it does not necessarily have to require superhuman effort. By studying the populations around the Mediterranean, scientists have found that soft and outdoor activity is part of the daily lives of these peoples. To get better results with the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is therefore recommended to practice at least 30 minutes of activity per day.
Walking, often a central part of a Mediterranean lifestyle, is a good place to start, but add what you want to your physical activity, whether it's gardening, Pilates or the elliptical trainer. That said, adults are generally encouraged to do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity per week, as well as a few days of muscle-building activities. Do not hesitate to get closer to a fitness center to know the most appropriate sports as part of a Mediterranean lifestyle.
Our opinion on the Mediterranean diet
From a dietary point of view, the Cretan diet is an excellent source of inspiration to eat healthy on a daily basis without giving in to the call of restrictive diets. This Cretan way of life gives the benchmarks for a balanced and very practical diet for people familiar with the cuisine and who appreciate the flavors of southern cuisines. Among its many virtues, the Mediterranean diet actually helps preserve the cardiovascular system and maintain a healthy weight. We can therefore only recommend following the principles of this diet on a daily basis in order to stay healthy. However, this would not exempt you from regular physical activity, because diet alone will not be able to provide you with a healthy weight.
Mediterranean diet: bet on fiber to protect your heart
Many researchers have looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the body. In 2013, Spanish scientists studied a population whose eating habits were close to the Cretan diet. To do this, they studied a sample of the Spanish population, europe's largest consumer of fruits and vegetables. Wanting to know the effects of the diet on cardiovascular disorders, the researchers observed patients in a hospital in Pamplona. They asked 171 Hispanics who had suffered a heart attack about their eating habits and then compared the results to those of a control group.
The results are rather surprising: according to scientists, the antioxidants and omega-3s in fish, olives, wine and other foods are not the most beneficial in the Mediterranean diet. In fact, these components would not be the main culprits of a decrease in cardiac risk. Indeed, it is fiber that is the essential element for the health of our heart, because those who eat it the most are much less likely to be victims of a heart attack.
According to Spanish researchers, the secret of a healthy heart lies in these famous fibers, already essential for the digestive system and for the fight against certain cancers. For a better functioning of the heart and intestine, it is therefore ideal to add the following fiber-rich foods to your Mediterranean diet:
- cereals to the sound,
- white beans,
- dried apricots,
- green peas
- wholemeal bread
- green beans,
- white bread
Mediterranean diet: example of a meal for a week
To start your Mediterranean diet today, here is an example of a menu for a week. Feel free to adjust the portions and food choices according to your own needs and preferences.
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with strawberries and oats.
- Lunch: whole cereal sandwich with vegetables.
- Dinner: tuna salad with olive oil, a piece of fruit for dessert.
- Breakfast: oatmeal with raisins.
- Lunch: leftover tuna salad from the day before.
- Dinner: salad of tomatoes, olives and cheese.
- Breakfast: omelette with vegetables, tomatoes and onions; a piece of fruit.
- Lunch: whole grain sandwich, with cheese and fresh vegetables.
- Dinner: Mediterranean lasagna.
- Breakfast: yogurt with sliced fruit and nuts.
- Lunch: leftover lasagna from the day before.
- Dinner: grilled salmon, served with brown rice and vegetables.
- Breakfast: eggs and vegetables, fried in olive oil.
- Lunch: Greek yogurt with strawberries, oats and nuts.
- Dinner: grilled lamb, with salad and baked potato.
- Breakfast: oatmeal with raisins, nuts and an apple.
- Lunch: whole grain sandwich with vegetables.
- Dinner: Mediterranean pizza made from whole wheat, topped with cheese, vegetables and olives.
- Breakfast: omelette with vegetables and olives.
- Lunch: leftover pizza from the day before.
- Dinner: grilled chicken, with vegetables and a potato; fruit for dessert.
Note that it is not necessary to count calories or the amount of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) in the Mediterranean diet.
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