10 Things You Should Know About The Mediterranean Diet Before You Start

It’s all about balance

This story was first published on 24 February 2022.

There are many reasons why one should start adopting the Mediterranean Diet. For one, it comes with a lot of health benefits such as a boost in heart health. It’s also isn’t as restrictive as other meal plans such as Ketogenic Diet, which mainly involves consuming meat, or on the opposite end, the Vegan Diet, which is plant-based.

You’ll find that this particular regimen that’s inspired by the cuisines of countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea doesn’t feel like a regimen at all. It gives you the freedom to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, seafood, and even meat.

Curious to know more? Here are 10 facts and tips beginners should know about Mediterranean Diet.

1. It’s mainly inspired by Italian and Greek cuisines

A plate of fruits with sea in the background

Indulging in fruits is a de rigueur when it comes to the Mediterranean Diet.

While the Mediterranean Diet shares similarities with local cuisines of other South European countries in the area, it borrows most of its form from the food patterns of Greeks and Italians in the early 1960s, according to a journal article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This means traditionally prepared meals, so no, a modern four-cheese all-meat pizza or a carbonara pasta are sadly not considered Mediterranean.

2. This diet is rooted in the Mediterranean history

Even though interest in the Mediterranean Diet started in the 1960s, its roots are embedded in history reaching as far back as the reign of the Roman Empire where there is a “strong preference” for fish and seafood. It is then further enhanced and transformed by Germanic and Muslim influences. The discovery of the Americas also introduced new ingredients to the diet including “potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peppers and chili, as well as different varieties of beans”, as per a 2013 study. As you can see, it’s a very well-rounded diet!

3. It was introduced to the world in the 1970s

bruschetta with olive oil on the side

Mediterranean Diet is high in vegetable oils.

Here’s a fun fact: The Mediterranean Diet was actually introduced to the world by an American. That’s right! Physiologist Ancel Keys, the same person who identified the link between saturated fat and heart disease, was the one who brought the diet to the mainstream consciousness. Chemist Margaret Keys, his wife, also helped him with the early research about the Mediterranean diet’s benefits and co-authored the seminal diet book How To Eat Well And Stay Well The Mediterranean Way, which characterises the diet as “low in saturated fat and high in vegetable oils”.

4. Maintaining the diet helps prevent heart disease

Salad Bowl with fork on top

Boost your heart health with the Mediterranean Diet.

Multiple studies were done to support their the Keys couple’s early findings. One of the most relatively recent ones was published in 2013. The research involved over 7,000 participants who followed the Mediterranean Diet for five years without reducing calories or increasing physical activity. The result showed that there was “reduced incidence of major cardiovascular events” among high-risk individuals.

5. The diet can protect brain health

Aside from your heart health, Mediterranean Diet can also help support brain function. It is tied to a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease and memory decline. A 2016 study also suggests that it may be linked to a lower risk for dementia. Even healthy adults are shown to enjoy a boost in cognition.

6. Mediterranean Diet can stabilise blood sugar levels

There is also consistent evidence that this particular type of diet can help people manage blood sugar levels and may even prevent incidence of type 2 diabetes. Those who are already living with type 2 diabetes can also benefit from eating a Mediterranean Diet as it is packed with dense nutrients.

7. It’s not a weight-loss diet

Hand holding tape measure

Mediterranean Diet is not primarily for weight loss.

While it comes with a lot of benefits, the Mediterranean Diet is not made with weight loss in mind, although it can prevent weight gain and in some cases weight loss can happen. All in all, it’s important to manage your weight loss expectations when it comes to following this particular diet.

8. Mediterranean Diet is flexible

Mediterranean Diet is very appealing for its flexibility, but there are some general guidelines according to a 2014 literature review that you should follow as a newbie.

Use extra virgin olive oil in your cooking

When shopping, look for cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. What’s its difference from regular olive oil? The extra virgin one is made purely from olives so it’s packed with more antioxidants,  while the other is blended with other processed oils and contains less of the good stuff.

Up your vegetable intake

Salad bowl with tomatoes and feta cheese

You can add vegetables to your diet in various ways.

Another guideline that characterises the Mediterranean Diet is its high portions of vegetable and fruits. This can range from leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach to root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower are also good to add to round off your vegetable intake. Remember, you don’t have to look for exclusively Italian or Greek recipes, you can actually alter local dishes with Mediterranean Diet guidelines in mind.

Add cereals and nuts to your diet

Nuts rich in good fat such as “almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts” are perfect for following a Mediterranean Diet. Cereals can also be added to your daily menu, but it must be a whole grain variant and not one that’s spruced up with sugar.

Moderate animal product and red wine intake

Barbeque with salad, fries and lime

Keep your meat intake in check. (Photo from: Error 420 via Unsplash)

At the centre of the Mediterranean Diet pyramid are fish, meat, and dairy. These delicious foods are best enjoyed in moderation and must be eaten with vegetables. Likewise, red wine, while it has heart health benefits, must be consumed only from time to time if you want to follow this diet.

Lower your sweets consumption

Finally, the Mediterranean Diet recommends that you indulge in sweets only occasionally. The only exception are fruits which followers of the diet eat as a snack or dessert.

9. The Mediterranean Diet has a low carbon footprint

If you want to lower your carbon footprint but not keen on adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may opt for the Mediterranean Diet. Since it is low in animal-sourced food and rich in plant-based ones, this way of eating has a considerably low impact on the environment compared to other Western diets.

10. You may need iron and calcium supplements

One fact that you should know before starting the Mediterranean Diet is that you may need to take iron and calcium supplements depending on your need. If you have certain conditions, you may consult with your doctor before taking on this diet.

To summarise, the Mediterranean Diet has a long history, offers many heart benefits, is flexible and has looser restrictions. Would you try it?

Next, find out what will happen when you do the keto diet.

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