Monday, April 4, 2011

A ringing endorsement of the Mediterranean Diet

Diets are a dime-a-dozen in America, and most will make elaborate claims for their effectiveness, ranging from losing a few pounds, to losing all of your body fat, growing an inch or two, and marrying the celebrity of your choice. Few deliver on these claims, and fewer still come with rules that are easy to follow. Many also focus on weight loss as their sole purpose, without regard to the effect of the diet on the rest of the body – the Atkins Diet is the classic example. In contrast to most diets, the Mediterranean diet is fairly simple to follow, has strong research behind it, and promotes healthy weight without sacrificing the rest of the body. I advocate eating in accordance with a Mediterranean diet even for those not seeking to lose weight, as I believe it to be one of the best diet plans currently known.

One of the things that makes it so easy is that it focuses on food, rather than numbers. What I mean is that when you sit down to eat, instead of counting calories, fat content, sugar content, or whatever, you decide based on the food itself. Thus, rather than pulling out a calculator and saying, ‘Ok, if I get the salad minus the dressing, and the pasta dish, but not the one with the cream sauce, and a non-fat latte, that will be the right amount of calories,’ you would instead say to yourself, ‘Ok, Salmon and Kale – salmon has omega-3s and protein, kale has fiber, vitamins and minerals. Good choice, I’m going to enjoy this.’ Focusing on what foods offer, rather than avoiding ‘bad stuff,’ is easier to do, and a healthier way to interact with food. Additionally, being in a positive state of mind while eating and being happy about the food you are eating, rather than fearful that it will make you fat or unhealthy, allows you to enter a parasympathetic state while you are eating, improving your digestion and helping you make the best of your meal’s nutrients.

Ok, the nuts and bolts... Here’s what you should eat the most of: olive oil or other unsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, legumes and fish. Consume moderate amounts of eggs, dairy and wine, and low amounts of red meat. The resulting diet is high in fiber, high in unsaturated fat, high in antioxidants, low in sugar and low in saturated fat. The additional rule is that this should be accompanied by regular physical exercise – remember that before supermarkets, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat!

The unwritten rule to the Mediterranean diet, which I feel is at least partially responsible for the diet’s beneficial properties, is to eat whole foods, and cook for yourself. These two rules go hand in hand as part of a diet plan. Based as it is on a traditional diet, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes food in its natural form, not in a processed, manufactured form. The health upshot of this is that by eating fewer processed foods you consume less saturated fat (and trans-fat) and less sugar, which are used to prolong the shelf-life of foods.

The research is very strongly in favor of the Mediterranean diet. The first data to support the efficacy of Mediterranean eating patterns came from the Seven Countries Study, which showed that deaths from heart disease in Southern European populations were lower than Northern Europeans and North Americans. Since then, many large studies have shown added benefits to a Mediterranean style of eating, including lower rates of depressionType II diabetes (non-insulin dependent diabetes), obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia,  and all-cause mortality. The message here is that the Mediterranean diet promotes a healthy weight, as well as dramatically improved cardiovascular health.

One of the reasons that I believe the Mediterranean diet to be especially beneficial and easy to follow is that it is modeled on how people actually eat, coming from traditional eating patterns in coastal Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco. Many diets are based on scientific research into nutrition and biochemistry, and try to target one macronutrient as the cause of weight gain or ill health – low fat, low carb, etc. diets fall into this category. The Mediterranean diet is based on a diet that has proven healthy for millions of people for generations. As a result, it takes into account a healthy balance of macronutrients, combined with vitamins and minerals. Additionally, and importantly, the diet is an enjoyable one, for after all, people wouldn’t have been eating this way if it didn’t make them both healthy and happy. So get out there, get some exercise, then come home and cook up a healthy meal, and above all, have a blast doing it – your heart and waistline will thank you.