The Mediterranean Diet Ranked #1 for Seven Years in a Row: What Makes It So Effective?

Tanja Ivanova

In its annual ranking of the best diets, US News & World Report awarded first place to the Mediterranean diet for the seventh year in a row. According to the publication, this style of eating, inspired by the eating habits of people in the Mediterranean region, has very high staying power because it is easy to follow in the long term and has been shown to promote heart, bone and bone health. articular. , and help prevent certain diseases, such as diabetes.

But “diet” really is a misnomer, says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, author of Eat our roots and a member of US News and World Reports Expert panel on the best diets. “It’s less of a diet, more of a lifestyle, an eating habit,” she says. “(It) can be customized based on the individual’s likes, dislikes, personal preferences, religious needs and access.”

“The Mediterranean diet is actually a long-term eating lifestyle…as opposed to another type of restrictive, time-limited diet,” agrees Maggie Berghoff, functional medicine nurse practitioner and author of Eat to enjoy. Rather than cutting out certain food groups or counting calories, “it focuses on (eating) lots of healthy fats, healthy oils and plant-based foods,” she says.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet began gaining attention as a healthy eating pattern in the 1950s, when scientist Ancel Keys, PhD, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Power, discovered a correlation between the habits dietary, lifestyle and cardiovascular health.

“Research found that people who followed Mediterranean eating habits tended to have better cardiovascular profiles, therefore lower cholesterol levels, better lipid markers and good cholesterol,” says Feller.

Of course, Dr. Keys didn’t invent the Mediterranean diet; it simply began to popularize a way of eating and enjoying food that people in the Mediterranean had followed for centuries. “The most important principles are seafood; lean protein in the form of beans, nuts and seeds; whole grains; ancient grains; fermented milk products; fruit,” says Feller. “And then alcohol should be consumed in moderation.”

When looking for inspiration for your Mediterranean menu, Feller says it’s important to consider the 22 countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, not just Greece, Italy and France.

“The countries of North Africa and the Middle East are not often highlighted (when we talk about the Mediterranean diet), when in fact, their eating habits are credible and really focused on legumes, cereals, seeds, fermented dairy products and some really interesting types. fruit,” she said. “We are often told: cucumber, feta, olives, tomatoes and red onion, this is the Mediterranean diet. Yes, it’s wonderful, but it could also be couscous and chickpeas in a Berber curry. There are so many different ways this can appear.

Mediterranean Diet Foods

Good news, friends: With the Mediterranean diet, it’s a very “you” approach to healthy eating. That being said, the Mediterranean lifestyle encourages you to fill your plate with particular foods and food groups.

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should eat at least one serving of vegetables per meal.

  • Seafood: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes seafood and poultry protein sources; Fish, in particular, is an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3s.

  • Healthy fats and oils: Extra virgin olive oil is touted as the hero of the Med diet, but Berghoff says other oils, like walnut and pecan oil, are also rich in healthy polyphenols.

  • Legumes: Legumes and legumes like lentils, beans, chickpeas, and peas are excellent sources of protein, fiber, and healthy fatty acids—and the Med Diet encourages you to eat them several times per week.

  • Nuts, seeds and grains: Whether you eat them as a snack, sprinkle them on salads, or make a bowl of whole grain cereal, add nuts.

  • Fermented dairy products: While the Med Diet recommends reducing your overall dairy intake to once a day, Feller says people in the Mediterranean enjoy the gut benefits of fermented dairy products like yogurt and goat cheese.

Foods to Avoid While Following the Mediterranean Diet

Alcohol should be consumed in moderation, if at all, on the Mediterranean diet, says Feller.

Wine is not a health food, let’s be clear. But research supports that a “Mediterranean way of drinking” – that is, drinking no more than one glass of wine per day with food – could have some health benefits for adults over the age of 35 years, notably a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

In addition to alcohol, the Mediterranean diet asks you to limit ultra-processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and foods very high in sugar (excluding fruit), says Berghoff.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

According to Berghoff, many of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet come from the way this eating style reduces inflammation in the body. On one hand, you reduce the consumption of foods known to cause inflammation, such as foods high in sugar, highly processed foods, red meats, and alcohol, she says. On the other hand, you increase the amount of inflammation-reducing foods you eat, including plants, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fats (mostly from olive oil).

What can this do for the body, specifically?

1. Promotes heart health

As mentioned, the initial appeal of the Mediterranean diet for many people was the research that supported its positive impact on heart health. And since Dr. Keys’ work in the 1950s, new studies have continued to support the Med diet’s ability to improve cardiovascular fitness.

In a study published in 2013, around 7,500 people at high risk of cardiovascular disease in Spain were asked to follow either a Mediterranean diet or a controlled diet. After following the participants for almost 5 years, the impact of the diet was clear (so clear, in fact, that the study was stopped early): for those who followed the Mediterranean diet, the risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 30 percent.

The American Heart Association also supports the Mediterranean diet, stating: “This eating style may play an important role in preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. »

2. Supports Healthy Blood Sugar Levels and Reduces Diabetes Risk

“What current research says is that a plant-based diet is also good for blood sugar management,” says Feller.

A 2017 meta-analysis of a total of 1.5 million people found that the heart-friendly Mediterranean diet has “strong potential to prevent diabetes.” In 2020, research published in the journal Nutrients concluded that following a Mediterranean-style diet was effective in reducing HbA1c (or blood sugar) levels and may also play a role in managing the progression of type 2 diabetes.

3. Supports bone and joint health

Recent research also shows that adhering to a Mediterranean diet rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients can improve bone mineral density, muscle mass and movement ability and therefore could slow the onset of osteoporosis and sarcopenia (loss of muscle strength). .

4. Protects against certain cancers

According to the National Cancer Research Foundation, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce cancer-related deaths and also plays a role in the prevention of certain cancers, including colorectal, breast, stomach, pancreas, prostate and lung.

“There is compelling research on high plant intakes as well as seafood-rich dietary habits (impacting) certain cancers. It is therefore believed to be an anti-carcinogenic diet,” explains Feller.

Feller also points out that while the Mediterranean diet may protect against some cancers, it does not cure cancer.

5. Supports Longevity

Put all of these benefits together and you’re looking at the possibility of living a longer, healthier life. In fact, two of the original five Blue Zones – or regions that are home to the world’s oldest populations – are in the Mediterranean: Ikaria, Greece, and Sardinia, Italy.

What lifestyle habits are part of the Mediterranean diet?

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: the Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle than a real diet.

According to Feller, a Mediterranean approach to eating focuses on seasonal ingredients and slow food – and it literally means “slow.” “A lot of these dishes take a long time to prepare! ” she says. “Think about fermented dairy products…(fermentation) is a process. »

Another benefit of taking the time to create and enjoy your meals is connection. “When we eat communally, we generally tend to be happier and do better,” says Feller.

Beyond eating habits, Berghoff says a Mediterranean lifestyle encourages physical activity. “(It doesn’t require) specific training, just move your body and be a more active person,” she says.

How to Conscientiously Follow the Mediterranean Diet

One of the best things about the Mediterranean diet is its “choose your own adventure” approach to eating. But for this reason, Berghoff warns, it’s important to get in touch with what makes your body feel and work in tip-top shape.

Take cereal, for example. Grains, especially bread and pasta, are on the menu of the Mediterranean diet, says Berghoff, but not everyone can tolerate them. “You want to make sure you’re paying attention to how you feel,” she says. If you suffer from bloating or irritated intestines, you will need to adapt your choices to avoid foods that cause this discomfort.

With that in mind, if you want to try the Mediterranean diet, Feller recommends starting with foods you already know and love. “Think about what you eat: what vegetables do you like? What cereals do you like? What seafood do you like? ” she says. “Go back to the foods (you) already eat and think about which ones fit (the Mediterranean diet criteria).”

Originally appeared on GQ

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