Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, director of nutrition at Oldways, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public health through healthy cultural food traditions, Boston. Oldwayspt.org
Bottom Line: Are you eating the healthiest diet in the world—or fooling yourself?
In some ways, the famously good-for-you Mediterranean diet is a victim of its own success. It’s got such a healthy glow that promoters selling diets that are radically different—even diametrically opposed—try to bask in it. But even people who are doing their level best to eat the real thing often misunderstand the diet and make mistakes that can substantially undermine its enormous potential.
That matters because there is more scientific evidence for the health benefits of the real Mediterranean diet than for any other diet in the world. Eating the Mediterranean way—the real Mediterranean way—has been shown to protect people from heart disease and stroke, as well as obesity, diabetes, dementia and colon cancer.
People who eat this way also have healthier DNA and live longer, on average, than people who don’t. Latest finding: Adults age 60 and older who most closely followed the diet over an average of four years were 38% less likely to experience frailty such as muscle weakness and fatigue, compared with those who followed it less closely. One reason: The diet is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that help keep muscles strong as we age.
So let’s get introduced to the Mediterranean diet right—as if it were for the first time—and get all the benefits…
The diet evolved in olive oil–producing regions near the Mediterranean Sea. At its most basic, it’s mostly vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts and seeds (“plant” foods), olive oil and seafood…some poultry and dairy…and very little red meat, sweets or processed foods. The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, developed 25 years ago by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways, a nonprofit that promotes healthy food traditions and lifestyles, remains an excellent guide today…
Eat every day: Fruits, vegetables, grains (mostly whole grains), olive oil, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts and peanuts, seeds, herbs and spices.
Eat often—at least twice a week: Fish and other seafood.
Eat often—daily or a few times a week, in moderate portions: Fermented dairy (yogurt, cheese) and eggs.
Eat less often, such as weekly: Poultry.
Eat infrequently—once or or twice a month: Red meats and sweets.
Drink: Water, and if you drink alcohol, only wine in moderation.
Get plenty of physical activity.
Make meals relaxed and enjoyable. A less stressful eating experience is part of the healthy Mediterranean way, too.
Easy-peasy, right? You’d think so. But it’s surprisingly easy to deceive yourself. Here are some things that the true Mediterranean diet is not…
It’s not low-fat. It’s easy to find low-fat “Mediterranean” cookbooks. But the real Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fat. The truth is, all that delicious olive oil is one reason why it’s so easy to eat all those vegetables. And yet studies show that sticking to the real thing—fat and all—helps people lose weight and keep it off. One reason is that the vegetables are so rich in fiber that they’re very filling.
It’s not low-carb. The book The Pioppi Diet: A 21-Day Lifestyle Plan is promoted as a “take on the Mediterranean diet,” yet it is essentially a very-low-carb diet that also calls for periodic fasting days and recommends coconut oil. None of these attributes are part of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of grains, including moderate portions of refined pasta mixed with olive oil and veggies, fish or beans—and whole grains including bulgur wheat, farro (an ancient form of wheat) and barley.
Pizza? Think again. Despite its Italian name, American-style pizza is fast food and generally not good for you. It’s one of the biggest sources of calories, sodium and saturated fat in the American diet. To make it healthier, make the crust whole-grain and top it with vegetables (not meat) and only a little cheese.
It’s not vegetarian and certainly not vegan. Beef, pork and lamb traditionally were considered luxuries and were reserved for special occasions, maybe a few times a month. But the Mediterranean diet is not a vegetarian diet and certainly not a vegan one. Seafood is key, but it’s fine to eat moderate amounts of poultry, eggs and dairy—especially fermented dairy foods such as yogurt and cheese.
It’s not about superfoods. No single food—not even olive oil—explains this diet’s power. It’s an eating pattern. Just adding one or two components—washing down your rib roast with a Barolo—won’t do much. It’s about shifting your overall approach and maintaining it for many years.
It’s not a license to drink. Alcohol plays a part in the Mediterranean diet, but again, it’s the pattern that counts—moderate drinking (up to one drink a day for women, two for men), mostly wine, almost always with meals. Beer isn’t unhealthy—it’s just not a big part of this dietary pattern. And drinking heavily, especially without eating—such as the cocktail hour—is the opposite of the Mediterranean way.
Now that you can spot Mediterranean-diet mistakes, you can get closer to the real thing—with its enormous health benefits, not to mention sheer deliciousness. Nobody’s perfect, and your diet doesn’t need to be either. But you can get close to this way of eating by taking a series of small steps—replace chips with nuts or fruit for snacks…choose beans or seafood over beef…replace soda and juice with water…drink wine at meals rather than booze on an empty stomach…switch to fresh fruit for dessert and save baked sweets and ice cream for special occasions.
We asked Kelly Toups for her favorite Mediterranean cookbooks. Her choices include a classic, a newer book and one from the Oldways collection…
Mediterranean Cookery by Claudia Roden. Well before Greek yogurt and olive oil were kitchen staples in the US, there was Claudia Roden, one of the foremost authorities on Mediterranean cuisine. Her simple-yet-elegant recipes have stood the test of time.
The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. This colorful collection of more than 500 recipes is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the bold flavors of the diet.
The Oldways 4-Week Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan. The menu plan takes you on a 28-day journey through many of the delicious and satisfying tastes of the Mediterranean diet. It includes plans for each day.