Looking for the best eating plan for long-term health? According to a recent US News and World Report, the Mediterranean Diet beat out the competition for ‘Best Overall Diet’, as well as the best and easiest plan to follow for the prevention and treatment of diabetes and heart disease. The benefits of enjoying a Mediterranean Diet menu filled with an abundance of colorful vegetables and fruits, savory whole grains and beans, rich and flavorful olive oil, a variety of lean proteins, and even a bit of red wine, have been studied for decades, and continue to be hot topics of research as nutrition scientists learn more about the important links between the foods we eat and lifelong health. As a long time advocate of the Mediterranean Diet, Mellissa Ellis, RD, YRMC Clinical Dietician Supervisor, encourages many of her patients to adopt this easy and satisfying eating plan. Melissa recently took time to share some insights on why this particular diet has the potential to benefit so many individuals.
Taking a bird’s eye view, Melissa describes the diet as one that features “many foods historically enjoyed in the region of the world bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including those from Greece, Southern Italy, and Crete. This plant-based diet promotes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans), and unprocessed, whole grains. Limits are put on dairy products, red and processed meats and sweets, but red wine can be consumed in moderation with meals. Healthy fats, like those in avocados, walnuts, and olive oil are prominent in the plan, as are lean sources of protein like fish, poultry and legumes.” In addition, most meals indigenous to the Mediterranean region are also flavored with an abundance of bright, fresh herbs and a variety of savory, sweet and sometimes pungent spices.
Research shows that the potential health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are many and varied, and Ellis stresses that these benefits “are greatest when the featured foods are eaten frequently, at most meals throughout the week.” Many of the health benefits of the diet are likely due to the rich blend of essential vitamins, minerals, fats, fibers, and phytochemicals that are packed into every meal. For example, the abundance of vegetables, fruits, spices, and herbs provide important disease-preventing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients like vitamin C and certain phytochemicals, including lutein in green vegetables and lycopene in tomatoes. The fiber in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans keep blood sugar and cholesterol levels in check, while also supporting healthy bacteria in, and regular elimination from, the gut! Added sugars, which tend to raise triglyceride and blood sugar levels, are limited, and healthy fats, which improve blood cholesterol and reduce inflammation, take center stage!
Ellis states that, “This diet would benefit most anyone. In addition to proven protection from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, promising research also has linked this way of eating to reduced risk of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Because it is not a ‘quick fix’ diet that overly restricts calories or a specific nutrient, it can be a plan that one can follow for life. Anyone that wants to maintain a healthy weight, take good care of their heart and support overall health should consider trying it”.
In general, the guidelines for planning healthy Mediterranean Diet meal plan include the following:
- Fill at least half of your plate at lunch and dinner with a variety of colorful vegetables.
- Flavor your meals with fragrant fresh herbs and spices.
- Enjoy a variety of fish or seafood once or twice a week.
- Build meals around rich and filling lentils or beans several times a week.
- Savor the sweetness of fresh fruit for snacks and desserts.
- Explore and sample wonderfully satisfying whole grains, including traditional varieties from the Mediterranean like bulgur (cracked wheat), barley, or farro (an ancient variety of wheat).
- Choose the healthiest fats, including those found in avocados and avocado oil, olives and olive oil, and a variety of whole nuts and seeds.
A number of useful and free online tools are available to help with meal planning and other details of the diet. The Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid and Planning Kit, developed in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, is filled with helpful tips and background information about the supporting science behind the diet. The American Diabetes Association offers a number of simple, delicious Mediterranean-style recipes at their user-friendly recipe and menu-planning site, Diabetes Food Hub. In addition, almost every one of our YRMC Your Healthy Kitchen video cooking tutorials feature meals that fit into a healthy, flavorful Mediterranean Diet plan, including a simple dish of pasta with fresh tomato sauce and herbs and a big variety of herb and flavor-packed pesto possibilities!