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Satisfying Sustenance: Exploring the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Last updated: February 19, 2024

The Mediterranean diet is a great way to improve your overall health and reduce your risk of chronic disease.

Allison Hatley, Health Coach, ThedaCare HealthWorks

If you’re looking for a sustainable, time-tested healthy eating plan, look no further than the Mediterranean diet. Experts consistently rank the Mediterranean diet at the top of their lists of nutrition strategies.

For many people, the very word “diet” can conjure complicated feelings of sacrifice and deprivation. The Mediterranean diet, however, is less a diet in the stereotypical sense and more so involves embracing healthy lifestyle choices.

As we mark Heart Month, it’s worth considering adopting the Mediterranean diet as a heart-healthy way to eat — and live.

“The Mediterranean diet is a great way to improve your overall health and reduce your risk of chronic disease, as it focuses primarily on plants, along with moderate amounts of seafood, eggs, poultry, and dairy,” says Allison Hatley, a Health Coach with ThedaCare HealthWorks.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

According to Mayo Clinic, it involves consuming a diet high in:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Seasoning with herbs and spice, which can help reduce reliance on salt for flavoring

The Mediterranean diet includes these steps:

  • Eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based fats each day
  • Consuming fish, poultry, beans, legumes, and eggs each week
  • Enjoying moderate portions of dairy products
  • Limiting red meat consumption
  • Reducing added sugar consumption

In essence, the Mediterranean diet focuses primarily on plant-based nutrition. That means vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, and whole grains play a starring role in most meals.

“There aren’t really any strict rules about what is or isn’t allowed, which may help it feel more sustainable to some,” Hatley says. “However, it’s generally recommended to limit red meats, processed meats, added sugars, and refined grains.”

Mediterranean diet benefits

The American Heart Association (AHA) is one of the many groups that endorses the Mediterranean diet. The organization says this style of eating aligns with its recommendations of:

  • Emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and legumes
  • Consuming moderate amounts of low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils, and nuts
  • Limiting added sugars, sugary beverages, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats

Beyond helping prevent heart disease and stroke, studies have show that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of some types of cancer, dementia, metabolic syndrome, and many other diseases and conditions. Because of its focus on foods high in fiber and antioxidants, it can also reduce inflammation.

“In addition to all of that, the Mediterranean diet contains many foods that can help you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer periods of time,” Hatley says. “That can help with weight loss or maintenance goals.”

How to get started

When adopting any new lifestyle habit, it’s smart to take a gradual approach. Consider trying to change one habit per week. Here are some ways to begin:

  • Swap in olive oil for butter in cooking when possible
  • Reach for small portions of unsalted nuts instead of processed snacks such as chips and crackers
  • Choose whole-grain breads
  • Try alternatives to white rice and pasta, such as brown rice, bulgur, farro, barley, couscous, or whole grain pasta
  • Eat plenty of fruits and veggies at each meal
  • Save red meats for special occasions and instead choose small portions of lean poultry
  • Add fish to your menu rotation — aim for two to three servings each week
  • Make leafy-green salads a dietary staple
  • Cut back on high-fat and sugar-laden desserts
  • Choose locally grown, seasonal produce when possible

Other important tenets of the Mediterranean diet include sharing meals with friends and family and getting regular exercise.

“If you’re looking to improve your heart and overall health, the Mediterranean diet is an excellent option,” Hatley says. “Consider adopting any or all of the healthy habits it recommends.”

Discuss dietary recommendations and other healthy strategies at your annual wellness visit.

Tags: healthy lifestyle heart health Mediterranean diet plant-based eating

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