In a previous post we described healthy food options for holiday indulgences. To help keep up with any health-related New Year’s Resolutions, you may want to consider taking cues from the Mediterranean Diet.
The Mediterranean Diet (MD) refers to the general pro-health diet consumed in areas around the Mediterranean Sea such as southern Italy and Greece (although all regions considered to be part of the Mediterranean do not necessarily adhere to this diet). And the MD is not just another health fad to help you lose 30 pounds in 30 days. The MD has extensively been researched for its association with longevity and reduced disease risk.
What’s in the MD?
The MD is characterized by a high consumption of fruits and vegetables and a lower consumption of red meats. Dairy is often in the form of cheeses and yogurt and protein often comes from vegetable sources such as legumes, or from lean animal sources such as chicken or fish.
Carbs don’t have to be the Enemy!
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are allowed in the MD. Shunning all carbs from your diet may not be the best approach for a diet change because they can be an important source of fiber and help keep you full. The key, however, is to opt for complex carbs rather than simple carbs. Complex carbs come from sources like legumes, vegetables, breads and pastas and simple carbs are found in sodas, candies and chocolate (think of simple carbs as ‘simple sugar). It is also helpful to opt for whole weight breads and pastas because they are higher in fiber which will help keep you full longer and prevent over eating and giving in to junk food cravings.
Tip: If you do find yourself daydreaming about Candyland, try fulfilling your cravings with fruit.
Not all Fats are Created Equal
The MD is not a fat-free diet. Fats are integral components of our cells and they are an important part of our diet. In fact, fat can make up 25-30% of the MD. The important distinction, however, is that not all facts are created equally, and the MD is rich in ‘healthy fats’.
Fats can be categorized as unsaturated and saturated. Saturated fats usually come from animal sources such as meat, cheese, butter and icecream, but can also come from non-animal sources like coconut and palm oil. These types of fats are considered ‘unhealthy’ because they are chemically ‘less fluid’ are ‘more stiff’ than unsaturated fats. To put this in perspective, imagine if the cells of your heart were made up of stiff cells versus more fluid and movable cells. Many research studies have supported this idea that a higher consumption of unsaturated fats and a lower consumption of saturated fats protects the heart.
Unsaturated fats can be classified as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but that discussion can be saved for another article. For now it’s important to remember unsaturated=good; and saturated=not-so-good. The primary fat source in the MD is from olive oil which is an unsaturated fat. Other sources of unsaturated fat that you can include in your diet include fish, nuts and legumes.
Tip: Use olive oil-based dressings and try replacing butter sticks with non-hydrogenated margarine. Hydrogenation is the process that makes an unsaturated fat a saturated fat. Hydrogenated fat is often found in desserts and pastries.
Wine and Dine
The MD also often includes red wine (1 glass/day for women and 2 glasses/day for men). Moderate consumption of red wine is associated with healthy cholesterol levels, and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Red wine contains antioxidants which help protect against high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and clogged arteries.
Tip: Don’t overdo it! A high consumption has the opposite effect and can actually increase your health risk.