The Mediterranean Diet. What Does the Dietitian think?

As a Registered Dietitian (RD), I’m often asked about what I think of the latest trending diet. Some of my responses are quick and simple, ie “No, I certainly don’t recommend limiting your intake to nothing more than herbal teas and a lemon juice/cayenne pepper/maple syrup concoction.” Most often though, I find myself providing a more detailed response. This is because most of the popular diets do offer benefit, some more than others, but at least some.

I thought I’d post a series on my professional opinion of popular diets. Today, I’m starting with a diet that more closely resembles my own nutrition philosophy. Here’s my take on the Mediterranean Diet.

The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet and has the research to back it. Multiple studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet is effective for reducing LDL cholesterol, also known as the “bad cholesterol”, as well as increasing HDL, the “good cholesterol”. Furthermore, improvements in blood sugar levels and blood pressure are associated with this way of eating.

The premise behind the Mediterranean diet is that it is high in vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, legumes and olive oil. Moderate amounts of low-fat dairy, fish, and red wine are recommended. What’s encouraged in limited amounts is red meat.

Much of heart-healthy benefits attributed from the Mediterranean diet stem from its high content of fresh produce, plenty of vegetables and fruits providing fiber and phytochemicals including antioxidants, shown to reduce the damage caused by free radicals. Olive oil, nuts- particularly almonds, and avocados are emphasized in the Mediterranean diet. They provide a source of monounsaturated fats, a type of beneficial fat shown to increase good cholesterol.

Is the Mediterranean diet sustainable? Most likely. The Mediterranean diet incorporates foods from all of the food groups- meat and beans, vegetables and fruits, dairy, and fats and oils. While red meat is limited, it’s not completely off limits either. In fact, red meat can still be enjoyed a couple times a month. Those who love a daily burger may have trouble adhering to the Mediterranean plan, but otherwise, it shouldn’t be considered a very challenging diet to follow.

The fact that most restaurants also cater to the Mediterranean diet makes it more likely that people will adhere. A salad or steamed veggies with grilled chicken breast or salad are typical restaurant meals that meet the Mediterranean diet criteria. Even pizza, when prepared with a whole-grain crust, veggies and a light layer of cheese can part of the plan.

Alcohol, something most diet plans restrict, if not eliminate, is a component of the Mediterranean diet that offers appeal. Moderate amounts of red wine are encouraged for its cardiovascular benefit. The key is limiting red intake to no more than one glass per day for women, two for men.

So what might a typical day on the Mediterranean diet look like? How about breakfast of oatmeal topped with a dollop of plain, non-fat Greek yogurt, a handful of berries and a few tablespoons of chopped walnuts. Lunch might include a meal- sized salad of spring mix and an assortment of vegetables, topped with a grilled chicken breast and edameme, finished with a light drizzle of olive oil. Dinner may feature a fillet of salmon with sides of quinoa and steamed broccoli, and balsamic vinaigrette for dipping. Snacks through the day could include a piece of low-fat mozzarella with whole-grain crackers, or a handful of almonds and an apple.

As a registered dietitian, I recommend the Mediterranean diet for anyone looking to improve their heart health as well as anyone seeking an overall healthy diet. The research is clear in that the Mediterranean diet helps to reduce risk factors associated with heart disease; improvements in cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure have been shown. However, the benefits of eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, lean proteins, nuts and seeds extends to overall improvements in health, especially when these foods replace the processed meals and snacks so abundant in the typical American diet.

For more information on the Mediterranean Diet, check out Oldways a food nutrition education organization.

One of my favorite meals- roasted veggie and goat cheese pizza on an egg white crust is Mediterranean Diet approved!


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