Last updated on October 8, 2021.
Mediterranean diet 101
The Mediterranean diet gives you a reason to eat like a Greek. This diet has a long history dating back to 1960 — a time when people from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, namely France, Greece, Italy and Spain were found to live longer and healthier than other countries. A remarkable coincidence, or was it not?
In fact, scientists tried to unlock the key to their longevity by taking a closer look at their traditional dietary patterns entailed in the Mediterranean diet. There is no definite answer as to what a Mediterranean diet must be like as it has been adopted widely over different areas with adjustments made according to individual needs, cultures and preferences.
The Mediterranean diet is making a comeback in recent years, being recognized as a healthy, sustainable dietary pattern; and as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Numerous studies suggested that people following this diet are less prone to cardiovascular diseases and other chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol level. Recent research even explored how the Mediterranean diet may potentially slow down the process of aging. That’s some food for thought, right?
You don’t necessarily have to be a master chef in cooking authentic Mediterranean-style dishes in order to reap the benefits. All you have to do is to incorporate fresh, healthy food ingredients that are easily accessible in your local grocery stores, into your daily meals.
Excited to try out but still not sure where to start? The Mediterranean diet is not as far-fetched as you may think. Learn more about this best expert-reviewed diet in this article as we decode it for you.
What is a Mediterranean diet?
Say yes to green without committing yourself to becoming a vegan! The Mediterranean diet is largely a plant-based diet, with minimally processed food of high fiber, unsaturated fats, quality protein and different micronutrients, as well as a relatively low intake of animal-based foods.
Foods to include
- Daily intake: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardine), seafood (e.g. clam, scallop, sea cucumber and crab), nuts, seeds, legumes, olive oil, avocado oil, herbs and spices
- Moderate intake: poultry, eggs, dairy products (e.g. cheese and yogurt)
- Limited intake: red meat
Foods to avoid
Avoid processed food, excessive alcohol, sugary drinks, saturated fat, trans fat, refined carbohydrates and red meat. These foods generate oxidative stress in the body, and cause inflammation.
You are suggested to eat fatty fish and seafood at least twice a week for the optimal intake of healthy fats — polyunsaturated fats, in particular omega-3 fatty acids.
Water and other sugar-free beverages, such as tea and coffee, are your go-to drink options. It is also common to allow a glass of red wine (preferably not more than that) per day in the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet is not really a “diet” stressing what foods you consume, but rather a lifestyle that says how you eat matters. Practicing mindful eating is the essence of the Mediterranean diet, whereby people take time to prepare and share filling, nourish home-cooked meals with family and friends and enjoy every bite without distractions. In this case, it is no surprise you will get to be physically active and learn to savor the moment.
Physical health benefits
1. Heart health
Healthy fats, namely unsaturated fats, are the staple of the Mediterranean diet with various benefits.
Olive oil is the main source of added fat in the Mediterranean diet, which provides monounsaturated fats. A 2018 research found that a Mediterranean diet with olive oil may significantly reduce the combined risk of stroke, heart attack and death from heart disease by up to 31%. Nuts and seeds are other good sources of monounsaturated fats. In particular, JAMA Internal Medicine suggested that the consumption of nuts can reduce the prevalence of metabolic syndrome.
Polyunsaturated fats — omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish and seafood can help reduce inflammation in the body. According to a study on Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health by American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids can also help decrease triglycerides, reduce blood clotting and decrease the risk of atherosclerosis and stroke.
The length of a cap structure at the tip of all chromosomes — telomeres — is a biomarker to estimate how fast someone is aging, how much longer they can live, and it is also associated with age-related diseases caused by stress and inflammation. Shortened telomeres are a sign of premature aging and many chronic diseases.
It is in this light that the healthy food combinations in the Mediterranean diet can lead to life-changing impacts due to their antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains can fight against oxidative stress (i.e. build-up of free radicals generated within the body or exposed from external sources e.g. processed foods) accumulated in the body and preserve telomere length. The Nurses’ Health Study concluded that the Mediterranean diet is associated with longer telomeres, thus promoting longevity.
3. Weight loss
The Mediterranean diet is not primarily about weight-loss. Nonetheless, compared to a calorie-restricted low-fat diet, a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet may be more effective in weight loss
Psychological health benefits
Researchers suggest that the Mediterranean diet goes beyond the body and affects the mind:
1. Anti-inflammation and mental health
As mentioned, foods with omega-3 fats in the Mediterranean diet are believed to have anti-inflammatory effects, which help remove free radicals from our body. But do you know that this can help relieve or prevent depressive symptoms too? Thanks to the dietary antioxidants in plant-based foods, free radicals generated from bodily processes involving metabolism will not be accumulated to form oxidative stress and will be less likely to stimulate immune activation, thus preventing the impairment of the central nervous system.
As the inflammatory effects may potentially lead to cognitive decline and hippocampal dysfunction or even mood disorders, the anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet can prevent the onset of various mental health conditions.
2. Glycemic load and mental health
The Mediterranean diet limits the intake of inflammation-induced highly refined carbohydrates.
Bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white rice, sweet desserts… To name but a few are examples of highly refined carbohydrates you may consume every day. In fact, high consumption of refined carbohydrates poses a high glycemic load to the body, which may in turn result in an impairment in autonomic counter-regulatory hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, impacting psychological well-being by triggering various depression signs. Consequently, adopting the Mediterranean diet may help relieve anxiety and improve mental irritability.
3. Gut microbiome and mental health
Gut microbiome, i.e. an umbrella term encompassing trillions of microbial organisms, bacteria and viruses, has been increasingly known for its paramount role in mental well-being over the past decades. As the brain is closely associated with the gut microbiome in terms of neuronal, inflammatory and hormonal pathways, there is physiological evidence for the correlation of the change in gut microbiome and the occurrence of major depressive disorder.
Apart from the genetic and environmental factors, diet is a significant modifiable determinant of the diversity, functionality, and relative abundance of the gut microbiome throughout the lifespan. In the Mediterranean diet, probiotics in dairy products can optimize the operation of the gut microbiome. This dietary style consists of high fibers, polyphenols, and unsaturated fatty acids, which can help elevate the gut microbial taxa and consequently promote the metabolization of the food into anti-inflammatory metabolites. A study on probiotics that target the gut microbiome further bolsters the belief that the gut microbiome is beneficial for emotion regulation. It suggests that the ingestion of probiotics can enhance the brain’s performance on tasks that require emotional attention, and thereby reduces depressive symptoms.
As you can see, the Mediterranean diet includes “happy foods” with compounds that have been shown to improve our mood and body.
It can be a fun and realistic way to help you achieve your goals if you’re looking for a long-term lifestyle change to keep yourself wholesome and healthy — or even better if you simply feel like eating the Greek way and exploring culinary happiness!
No. According to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), avoid king mackerel, orange roughy, marlin, shark, swordfish, tile fish and big eye tuna because they may contain a high level of mercury, a heavy metal that can damage the function of different internal organs. Go for salmon, haddock, canned light tuna and shrimp instead. Definitely not! In some mediterranean cultures, it is common to add a glass of red wine to the meal. But if you are not a wine drinker, do not force yourself to drink. Although some previous research has stated that polyphenols found in red wine provide protection against heart disease and diabetes, the results are inconclusive. While weight loss isn’t the main goal of Mediterranean diet, some research shows that a Mediterranean diet may have a better weight loss effect than a low-fat diet. The proposed rationale is that a higher intake of healthy fat and fiber in a Mediterranean diet provides satiety and sustain fullness longer, reducing the urge to eat and thus overall caloric intake. Nonetheless, without carefully observing the amounts of food and portion sizes, adopting a Mediterranean diet can lead to weight gain.
Are all fatty fish safe to eat?
Is it a must to drink red wine in a Mediterranean diet?
Can Mediterranean diet help me lose weight?
No. According to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), avoid king mackerel, orange roughy, marlin, shark, swordfish, tile fish and big eye tuna because they may contain a high level of mercury, a heavy metal that can damage the function of different internal organs. Go for salmon, haddock, canned light tuna and shrimp instead.
Definitely not! In some mediterranean cultures, it is common to add a glass of red wine to the meal. But if you are not a wine drinker, do not force yourself to drink. Although some previous research has stated that polyphenols found in red wine provide protection against heart disease and diabetes, the results are inconclusive.
While weight loss isn’t the main goal of Mediterranean diet, some research shows that a Mediterranean diet may have a better weight loss effect than a low-fat diet. The proposed rationale is that a higher intake of healthy fat and fiber in a Mediterranean diet provides satiety and sustain fullness longer, reducing the urge to eat and thus overall caloric intake.
Nonetheless, without carefully observing the amounts of food and portion sizes, adopting a Mediterranean diet can lead to weight gain.