What could be more idyllic than an eating plan inspired by the sun-soaked cultures of the Mediterranean? Succulent spreads of hummus, fruits, nuts — with the occasional glass of red wine.
It‘s no wonder there has been so much hype around the Mediterranean Diet, with everyone from celebrities to nutritionists praising it as the best way to be healthy and lose weight.
Unlike many diets, there actually are numerous reasons why it is healthful and beneficial for the body. But considering Mediterranean foods “better” than cuisines from other parts of the world is problematic.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The concept of the Mediterranean Diet is not new — it can be traced to the 1950s when American researcher Ancel Keys began his Seven Countries Study, which examined the link between diet and cardiovascular disease in, you guessed it, seven countries.
His team found that Greece and Italy had lower rates of coronary artery disease than other countries and bam! The concept of the Mediterranean Diet came to be — embracing a focus on plant-based and minimally processed food and a plethora of herbs and spices.
“The way I explain the Mediterranean diet is just a real focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins — avoiding things like red meat and sweets. Basically, a whole foods diet,” says Karen Conger, a dietitian at Harborview Medical Center.
Judy Simon, a dietitian at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt, agrees, though she prefers to refer to the diet as “plant-forward eating” instead of calling it the Mediterranean Diet (for reasons we’ll get into shortly).
“I think we're showing people that you don't have to be a strict vegetarian or vegan to be more plant-forward,” says Simon. “We want to make sure you have protein, but it doesn't all have to come from animal sources, you can get it from nuts, beans and other places.”
What kinds of foods should you eat and not eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on whole and unprocessed foods with few or no additives. Which means plenty of foods like the following:
Fruits and veggies
Fish (salmon, sardines and tuna)
And a moderate amount of the following:
Chicken and turkey
Wine (Yay! But again, in moderation.)
Of course, there are some things to limit when you’re following this diet. For the most part you’ll want to eat the following sparingly: red meat, sweets, butter, refined grains, sugary drinks, the majority of alcoholic drinks and processed foods.
Why all the hype?
Some of reasons health professionals love the Mediterranean Diet are:
This one is a biggie. There’s been plenty of research to show that plant-forward diets can have big health benefits for people dealing with everything from chronic diseases like diabetes to symptoms of menopause.
According to Simon, “People who eat in a plant-forward way have a more anti-inflammatory diet because they have more antioxidants coming from the fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It's also lower glycemic, and right now, we're concerned with the increasing number of people with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes."
It’s great for your heart
This diet is often recommended for heart health because it focuses on healthy types of fats like olive oil and encourages protein foods that aren’t laden with saturated fats, like red meats.
It’s good for the mind
“I suggest it when people come to me and want an anti-inflammatory diet, or for brain health or dementia prevention,” says Conger.
Other benefits? This diet can prevent high blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels, can keep your gut feeling good and even lower the risk for some cancers. Oh, and did we mention the wine?
What are the issues with all the hype around the Mediterranean Diet?
The main problem? Putting a specific culture’s way of eating on a pedestal as the best can be culturally stigmatizing to other groups. All the superlatives around the Mediterranean Diet can make it seem like less Eurocentric food is inferior or not as good for you.
"I like to emphasize that there are no good foods and bad foods,” explains Conger. “It's interesting to have such an emphasis on the Mediterranean region, when in other places, like in Japan, there are really healthy vegetables that aren't included in that diet.”
All cultures have healthy ingredients that they incorporate into their diets and that contain a lot of good nutrition. Plus, many of the countries around the Mediterranean have very different diets from one another, which makes the name, and the generalization, a bit misleading.
Combating those issues
So, what do we do? For Simon, one solution is referring to the Mediterranean Diet as a “plant-forward diet” instead, which she thinks is far more inclusive for people of different cultures. There’s plenty of room to switch things up and make food that is more in line with your cultural tastes. You can even use some Mediterranean Diet-inspired substitutions for your favorite dishes if you’d like — like swapping olive oil for butter or fish for red meat.
Conger says, “I just want to make it easier for people, and I want them to eat the foods that are part of their culture, the foods they enjoy.”
When you look at various global cuisines, it’s clear that there are plenty of options.
“For an Asian diet, soy is a wonderful source of protein,” says Simon. “I also encourage people to experiment with edamame [soybeans], which is a perfect little food — a nice bundle of protein and fiber, which is actually very balanced.”
She also mentions how healthy black-eyed peas are in a lot of East African dishes, and lentils and beans can be found in dishes across many cultures, plus they’re affordable and nutrient dense (magnesium, selenium and folic acid — oh my!).
In your own kitchen
Not the most adept in the kitchen? Not to worry — you can still put together a plant-first diet, even if you’re not a gourmet cook.
Simon explains, “We have to make sure we don't put a health halo on things, that unless you're making everything from scratch, it's not good for you. We want to meet people where they are at because taking small steps can make a change.”
This could mean making instant oatmeal with no additives, and then adding your own healthy toppings; hard-boiling eggs for a simple snack; or even air frying tofu, veggies and brown rice to create a delicious meal that isn’t expensive.
Most importantly, all cultures have nutritious, tasty options to bring to the table, so keeping an inclusive and open heart (and mouth) when it comes to experimenting with healthy cuisine is key to improving the health and wellness of all communities.