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The Mediterranean Diet
By Claire Marshall, MS, RD, LDN

Can you call something a “diet” that doesn’t dictate a strict eating regimen? Is there an evidence-based healthy lifestyle that you can model your diet after?

The answer is, yes, when the diet in question is the Mediterranean diet. Both researchers and physicians seem to agree that this is a plan that works. For those who follow the Mediterranean principles, there’s positive feelings about a diet that not only helps them lose weight, but also keep it off. For physicians, evidence seems to be that persons on a Mediterranean diet tend to live long, healthy lives with lower risk of developing chronic diseases.

The key to the Mediterranean diet is that it is not a short-term eating plan, but rather a way of life. The combination of good nutrition and physical activity is essential for a long and healthy life. Moderation in terms of food and alcohol consumption is also important. Choosing nutritious foods is key.

The Mediterranean diet follows simple principles. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and seeds that also provide micronutrients (antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) that may protect against conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.

A simple way to follow the Mediterranean diet is to take advantage of fresh, local whole foods that are in season. Here are some simple tips to try:

  • Add fruits and vegetables to each meal.
  • Buy foods in their raw form rather than canned, boxed, or frozen. The fewer ingredients, the better.
  • Opt for low-fat protein sources – mostly fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, or plant-based proteins.
  • Incorporate whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds to obtain a variety of nutrients.

The Mediterranean diet has a dietary pattern that it recommends: Eat mostly plant-based foods, limited amounts of animal protein, and healthy sources of fat.

Know Your Limits

  • Avoid large amounts of red meats or full-fat dairy products, which are high in saturated fat.
  • Limit sweets, added sugar, and foods that are high in calories with limited nutritional benefit (such as soda).
  • Avoid excessive amounts of processed, refined bread and grain products.
  • Choose heart healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil, instead of butter or margarines that contain trans-fat.
  • If you choose to have alcoholic beverages, try to limit your alcohol intake to one serving a day for women and two daily for men. Alcohol, in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some research studies.

Healthy Fats
The Mediterranean diet stresses consumption of plant-based fats. Saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (or, trans fats) are discouraged.

The primary source of fat in a Mediterranean diet is olive oil. It contains monosaturated fat, the type of fat that can reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Olive oils labeled “extra virgin,” or “virgin,” are the least processed forms and contain the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.

Fatty fish – including mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon – are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids that are associated with decreased chance of sudden heart attack and help to moderate blood pressure.

As a general rule, the Mediterranean diet stresses making meal times all about truly tasting and enjoying your food. Eating meals as a family on a regular basis is encouraged. Enjoying red wine and other alcohol should be done in moderation.

The important thing is that a healthy lifestyle – and not a short-term diet – is the key to long-lasting good health.

Claire Marshall, MS, RD, LDN, is a Senior Health Coach at UPMC Health Plan. For more information about health coaching, visit upmchealthplan.com/health/coaching.html.

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