DEAR DOCTOR K:
I keep hearing about the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. But what IS a Mediterranean diet?
The “Mediterranean diet” refers to the traditional diet of Greece, Italy and other countries near the Mediterranean Sea. There is a good deal of scientific evidence that the diet has health benefits.
The Mediterranean diet consists mostly of plant foods. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Animal protein is consumed chiefly in the forms of fish and poultry. Olive oil is the principal fat. And wine is taken with meals.
What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet? For people who follow the diet regularly, there are many of them. The diet is associated with lower body weight. There is a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. People who regularly follow the Mediterranean diet have lower risks of dying of heart disease, stroke or cancer, and have a longer lifespan.
Sound good? There is no pill ever invented that can give you all those health benefits.
We have a lot more information in our Special Health Report called “Healthy Eating: A Guide to the New Nutrition.”
In the meantime, here are some tips to help you get started on eating the Mediterranean way:
(1) Pile on the fruits and vegetables, and eat many different — and different-colored — varieties.
(2) Go a little nuts. Nuts are nutritious, but calorie-dense. Restrict yourself to a small handful a day. Some grocery stores sell small bags of mixed nuts and dried fruits. The total calories in one bag are about 150 to 200. I keep a bunch in my desk and have one bag a day, typically at a time (like mid-afternoon) when I’m feeling a little sleepy and hungry.
(3) Go for the whole grains. There are good carbohydrates (“carbs”) and bad carbs. Choose whole grains (good carbs) over refined grains. Whole-grain breads, for example, are healthier than white breads, brown rice is healthier than white rice. And I think whole-grain breads and brown rice also taste better. (I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a brand of whole-grain pasta that I think tastes better than traditional refined-grain pasta, but I haven’t. If you have, let us know.)
(4) Eat good fats. For a long time, we’ve been told that fat in the diet is bad for you. That’s just plain wrong. There are good fats and bad fats. You need the good ones, and olive oil and canola oil are rich in good fats. (Butter and lard are full of bad fats.) Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats and are found in anchovies, sardines, mackerel and salmon.
(5) Slow down. Embrace the traditions of the Mediterranean diet by taking time to enjoy your meal. Eating a large meal over 30 to 40 minutes, instead of 15, allows you to feel full with much smaller portions. And that helps control your weight.