U.S. News & World Report, a noted authority on both ranking things and consumer advice, has named the Mediterranean diet the best diet for 2019, and for good reason.
In this age of restrictive eating regimens like keto and paleo, the Mediterranean diet offers a long-term plan that you may actually be able to sustain. Unlike diets that seem to eliminate more ingredients than they allow, the Mediterranean diet serves more as a list of what you should eat than what you shouldn’t.
And its benefits aren’t limited to weight loss ― studies have proven that it can help you live a longer, healthier life. Doctors have prescribed the Mediterranean diet for people suffering from heart disease, depression and dementia.
Curious yet? Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know.
The Big Idea
The Mediterranean diet is modeled after the collective lifestyles of inhabitants of Crete, Greece and southern Italy in the mid-20th century. At the time, they displayed low rates of chronic disease and higher-than-average adult life expectancy despite having limited access to modern health care. Because of the wide geographical area it springs from, the diet comes in many forms. But the plan most people follow today is based on the 1993 Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, a guide created to familiarize people with the most common foods of that region.
These foods are largely plant-based, including whole grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs and spices. The diet also includes fish, poultry and dairy in smaller amounts. Though the pyramid suggests the proportions of foods one should eat, an unusual aspect of the Mediterranean diet as it’s promulgated today is that portion sizes are not regulated, allowing each individual to decide how much they eat based on their own body type and size.
Foods You Should Eat
As noted, the Mediterranean diet focuses heavily on plant-based foods. It encourages consumption of the following:
Fruits and vegetables, up to nine daily servings of antioxidant-rich produce
Healthy fats, including avocados, nuts and olive oil (no butter!)
Whole grains such as rice, pasta and bread (unrefined and served with olive oil, not butter)
Omega 3-rich fish around twice a week, including mackerel, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Other animal proteins such as poultry, eggs and dairy can be eaten in small portions either daily or a few times a week. Red meat shouldn’t be eaten more than a few times per month.
Water as the primary beverage, but one to two glasses of wine a day are allowed for men and one glass a day for women.
The plan also encourages daily physical activity.
Foods You Should Avoid
While it’s not generally a prohibitive diet, there are a few categories of food to avoid: added sugar, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and other highly processed foods.
Research has consistently shown that the Mediterranean diet is effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and overall mortality, and recent studies have even suggested it can help prevent depression.
Defying the common notion that a healthy eating plan must be low in fat, it’s rich in healthy fats coming from fatty fish, olive oil and nuts and has no fat or calorie restrictions. Studies have actually found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the rate of death by stroke by 30 percent and lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Studies also show that the antioxidants found in the Mediterranean diet can help prevent dementia and other age-related cognitive decline and that those who adhere to the diet may be 46 percent more likely to age healthfully (which is defined as living to 70 years or more with no major chronic diseases or impairments).
There are no significant dangers to following the Mediterranean diet, but because there aren’t any restrictions on portion sizes, it is possible to overeat, which could lead to weight gain.
The Harvard School of Public Health warns that boosting your consumption of a single food from the Mediterranean diet won’t give you the same results as eating the diet’s collective foods: “It is the combination of these foods that appear protective against disease, as the benefit is not as strong when looking at single foods or nutrients included in the Mediterranean diet. Therefore it is important to not simply add olive oil or nuts to one’s current diet but to adopt the plan in its entirety.”
Consult Your Doctor
As always, speak to your physician before significantly altering your diet and lifestyle to make sure any changes sync with your individual needs. But for many people, Harvard has deemed the Mediterranean diet to be “a healthy eating pattern for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, increasing lifespan and healthy aging. When used in conjunction with caloric restriction, the diet may also support healthy weight loss.” Sounds like a plan worth considering.