With a number of diets dictating how much, how often, and what we should eat, it can be difficult to distinguish ingredients our bodies need to thrive from those that leave us feeling drained, imbalanced, or even depressed.
You’ve likely heard of intermittent fasting, the number one diet trend of 2019, or the Paleo Diet, in which you eat foods similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era. Maybe you’ve heard a cautionary tale or two around consuming too much sugar or not consuming enough fiber; and odds are, you have a friend who regularly touts the benefits of going gluten-free.
How do you decipher fact from fiction? More importantly, how do you know what’s best for your unique genetic make-up? In this post, we’ll be exploring the Mediterranean diet, which has been associated with cardiovascular, cognitive, and mood benefits. We’ll also look at some foods that should be avoided or consumed only in moderation. Finally, I’ll share some resources so you can continue to make informed decisions around what makes it onto your plate and what doesn’t.
A Brief History of the Mediterranean Diet
Interest in the Mediterranean diet emerged in the 1960s with the observation that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in Mediterranean countries, like Italy and Greece, than in the US and northern Europe. The diet has since become one of the healthy eating plans recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to promote health and prevent chronic disease and is also recognized by the World Health Organization as a healthy and sustainable dietary pattern.
As you might have guessed, the Mediterranean diet is modeled after traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. While there is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, it is typically high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nut and seeds, and olive oil. The main components of the Mediterranean diet include daily intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats; weekly intake of fish, poultry, beans, and eggs; moderate portions of dairy products; and limited intake of red meats.
Nuts, Seeds, & Olives, Oh My!
Here are some further guidelines to keep in mind:
The foundation of the Mediterranean diet is fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Meals are built around these plant-based foods.
- Daily servings: at least 3 (one serving equals ½ cup)
- Include berries in at least one of those servings.
- Dried fruit is ok but watch for added sugar.
- Limit fruit juice to no more than one of those servings.
- Daily servings: at least 6 (one serving equals ½ cup)
- Aim for a variety of colors.
- Include green leafy vegetables or tomatoes in at least one of those servings.
- Frozen is fine. Mushrooms count. Limit potatoes to one serving a day unless it’s a sweet potato.
100% Whole grains
- Daily servings: at least 5-8 (one serving equals 1 slice of bread, ½ cup cooked rice or pasta, or ¼ cup oats or muesli)
- Examples of whole grains include bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, muesli, whole wheat crackers, bulgur, farro, and quinoa.
- Avoid products that include high fructose corn syrup, sugar, soybean oil, corn starch, soy lecithin, sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium propionate, mono- and diglycerides, and other preservatives.
- Weekly servings: at least 4 (one serving equals ½ cup beans, or 1/3 cup hummus or tofu)
- Edamame, hummus, tofu, and falafel count.
Nuts, seeds, & olives
- Daily servings: at least 1 (one serving equals ¼ cup nuts or seeds, or ½ cup olives)
- Minimize salt. Substitute herbs or spices instead.
- Peanut butter and other spreadable nut butters count but look for low sugar options.
Sample Meal Plan
Retrieved from Harvard School of Public Health
Breakfast: 1 cup cooked steel-cut oats mixed with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, ¾ cup cup fresh or frozen blueberries, sprinkle of cinnamon
Lunch: Beans and rice – In medium pot, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Add and sauté ½ chopped onion, 1 tsp cumin, and 1 tsp garlic powder until onion is softened. Mix in 1 cup canned beans, drained and rinsed. Serve bean mixture over 1 cup cooked brown rice.
Lunch (continued): 2 cups salad (e.g., mixed greens, cucumbers, bell peppers) with dressing (mix together 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar, ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, ½ teaspoon garlic powder, ¼ tsp black pepper)
Snack: 1 medium orange
Dinner: 3 ounces baked salmon brushed with same salad dressing used at lunch/ 1 medium baked sweet potato with 1 tbsp soft margarine/ 1 cup chopped steamed cauliflower
Snack: 1 ounce 75% dark chocolate
As you consider making dietary changes, be sure to implement them gradually. Keep in mind any underlying health conditions or sensitivities you may have and consult your doctor with any questions or concerns.
Healthy fats are a pillar of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is the primary source of added fat in the diet and provides monosaturated fat which has been found to lower cholesterol. Nuts and seeds also contain monosaturated fat. Fish is also important, particularly fatty fish – mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon, and lake trout – which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that may reduce inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids also help decrease triglycerides, reduce blood clotting, and decrease the risk of stroke and heart failure.
- Daily servings: 3 tablespoons
- Olive oil is low in saturated fats, and extra virgin has brain-healthy antioxidants.
- EVOO burns at ≥ 325-400°F. For high-temperature cooking, use regular olive oil (465°F,) safflower oil (510°F,) or avocado oil (520°F).
- Extra virgin olive oil is the most stable oil when heated, followed closely by coconut oil and other virgin oils such as avocado and high oleic acid seed oils.
- Weekly servings: at least 2 (one serving equals 3 ounces cooked)
- “Fresh” fish is often defrosted so frozen is a wise buy.
- Costco’s frozen Kirkland Atlantic salmon is preferred by chefs.
- Avoid deep-fried fish.
Foods to Eat in Moderation
Milk, cheese, & yogurt
- Maximum daily servings: 3-4
One serving equals:
- Milk: 1 cup (250 mL)
- Yogurt: 200 grams
- Hard cheese: 40 grams
- Soft cheese: 120 grams
- Lean Red Meat: Maximum weekly servings: 3-4 (one serving equals 3 ounces)
- Poultry: Maximum weekly servings: 2-3 (one serving equals 3 ounces)
- Eggs: Maximum weekly servings: 6 (fewer if you struggle with high cholesterol)
Other key elements of the Mediterranean diet include sharing meals with family and friends, enjoying a glass of red wine, and being physically active. A note on wine: “The Mediterranean diet typically allows red wine in moderation. Although alcohol has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some studies, it’s by no means risk-free. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans caution against beginning to drink or drinking more often on the basis of potential health benefits.” – Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER)
Foods to Avoid
The following foods should be avoided or limited to three servings per week, with one serving equal to 120 calories:
- Processed foods
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- White bread/pasta
- Deli meats
- Bacon, beef jerky
When purchasing packaged foods, opt for those with fewer chemical ingredients, lower salt, and lower added sugar (25 grams a day for women; 36 grams a day for men.) Highly processed foods typically include packaged meals, hotdogs, cold cuts, bacon, sausage, soda, chips, microwave popcorn, candy, frozen desserts, sugary breakfast cereals, energy bars, bottled drinks, Frappuccinos, pre-mixed baking items, margarine, and pre-made sauces.
Mind & Body Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
In my role as a therapist, I’m invested in helping clients make meaningful life changes to promote their physical, mental, and emotional health.The Mediterranean diet boasts a host of benefits for body and mind, including:
- Preventing heart disease and stroke: The Mediterranean diet limits intake of refined breads, processed foods, and red meats, all of which can help prevent heart disease and stroke.
- Preventing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease: By following a heart-healthy diet, you may reduce a decline in memory and thinking skills with age.
- Preventing and managing Type 2 Diabetes: The Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, which digests slowly, prevents drastic swings in blood sugar, and can help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Reducing risk of depression: Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is linked to lower incidence of depression, though further research needs to be done to understand the correlation.
Additional mood- and mind-boosting ingredients include:
- Turmeric: associated with alleviating symptoms of both mild and major depression
- Cinnamon: associated with improving memory, combatting mild cognitive impairment, and slowing cognitive decline
- Dark chocolate: associated with lowered risk of depression
- Probiotics: may help boost mood and cognitive function and lower stress and anxiety but further research is needed
Save room for dessert
As you consider making dietary changes, be sure to implement them gradually. Keep in mind any underlying health conditions or sensitivities you may have and consult your doctor with any questions or concerns. Be mindful of any intervention that promises a “quick fix” or requires drastic reductions in caloric intake or extreme fasting. Try to gather information from research-based sources rather than lifestyle publications, television ads, or social media. Here are a few to consider:
MyPlate: managed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides dietary guidelines, resources, and recipes to support building healthy and budget-friendly meals
Healthy Eating | American Heart Association: managed by the American Heart Association, provides articles, resources, recipes, and more to support a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle
Eat Right: managed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, provides a variety of resources including tip sheets, handouts, games, and activities to support making smart food and nutrition choices
I hope these tips and guidelines enable you to remain conscientious around the food choices you make each day. Consider following some of the recommendations of the Mediterranean diet and see if you notice any changes in your mood, well-being, or energy levels. Remember, a healthy diet is just one piece of looking after your physical and mental health! It’s important to regularly engage in self-care activities that help you feel relaxed, connected, and restored.
Bonus: Homemade Popcorn Recipe
For your next movie night or afternoon snack fix, try this easy homemade popcorn recipe:
- 1/3 cup popcorn
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Place olive oil in heavy bottom pot on high heat. Add 3 kernels of popcorn. When they pop, add the rest.
- Cover and turn off heat for 30 seconds. Turn heat back to high and shake pot every few seconds. Lift the cover slightly every 15 seconds to let out steam.
- When popping slows, turn off heat and add popcorn salt or try one of the seasoning blends below. Enjoy!
CATEGORIES: health & wellness