Why the Mediterranean Diet Really Works

March 28, 2011

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med dietHave you heard of the Mediterranean Diet? Research shows that eating “the Mediterranean way” helps control weight, reduces the risk of many serious illnesses, and leads to a longer, healthier life.

But what is it? First, it’s not a weight loss plan or “diet” in that sense. It’s a way of eating that people living in the Mediterranean region of the world have been following for centuries.

In a nutshell, it’s how people in this and other regions of the world ate before there were grocery stores, fast food restaurants, or frozen and canned “ready to eat” meals. People ate what was fresh and in season – often foods they or their neighbors or family grew, raised, or caught. Foods were often eaten within a day or two of harvest, unless there was a way to dry or preserve them otherwise.

Seafood is a big staple in this “diet,” as the Mediterranean has long had a rich fishing industry. Poultry and eggs are next, and red meat is eaten sparingly, usually on special occasions surrounding a “feast” or celebration.

Fresh, seasonal produce rotates in and out throughout the year – spinach in spring, tomatoes in summer, squash in the fall, root veggies in winter, etc. – and it isn’t uncommon for meals to feature more fruit and vegetables than meat. Breads and pastas are made with freshly milled whole grain; beans and other legumes are often served in place of meat; fat primarily comes from olive oil and other monounsaturated sources; and a glass of red wine typically accompanies the meal. Fresh fruit drizzled with honey might top off the meal, serving as a naturally sweet “dessert.”

Portion sizes are small because the focus is more on quality, freshness, and taste than on eating large volumes of bland food. Friends and family sit and linger over the meal, rather than gobble down food quickly on the go.

The latest version of the USDA dietary guidelines is largely based upon this way of eating, and many health experts recommend we go back to this “simpler” diet because of its health benefits. Studies show that people living in the Mediterranean area today – and still eating in this time-tested fashion – have some of the lowest rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other serious illnesses in the world.

One quick and easy way I advise patients to start heading in this direction is to ask themselves, “Was this food available 100 or 200 years ago?” If not, there’s probably a better choice available. For example, cheese puffs were not, but carrot sticks were. So carrot sticks would be a better snack option than cheese puffs. And of course, they are!

In the United States, we’ve lost touch with these simple dietary principles, and I believe our skyrocketing obesity rates and related illnesses are the result. Pre-made and pre-packaged foods may be convenient, but we’re paying for that convenience with our health.

I urge you to give this ancient way of eating a try. It may mean more planning, shopping at local farmers’ markets or health food stores, cooking from scratch and at home, and slowing down a bit, but I have a feeling that once you give eating fresh, wholesome, natural foods a try, you’ll wonder how you ever ate anything else!

Dr. Michael Kaplan

Founder and Chief Medical Officer

The Center for Medical Weight Loss

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