Question:

I’ve been doing some research and came across the Mediterranean diet as a great way to maintain a healthy weight as well as gaining many lifelong health benefits from the foods/ingredients it’s centered on. Are you familiar with the Mediterranean diet and if so any pointers for transitioning from one diet to a different diet?

– Shelby G.

Answer:

The key specifics of a Mediterranean style diet depend on who you ask, since it is truly a reflection of a regional dietary pattern, not from one particular person, author or company.

Bordering the Mediterranean Sea are Southern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa. Dietary patterns from countries of the latter two started to be referred to as a “Mediterranean Diet” in the 1960’s.  According to the Mediterranean Diet, the major source of calories come from grains, fats and oils, with less meat (predominantly beef, pork, and mutton) than other areas, and the remainder of protein is obtained from dry beans and chickpeas1.

Based on the observed health status of southern European countries, the Mediterranean pyramid was introduced in 1993 and serves as the basis for what most people now refer to as the “Mediterranean Diet”, which is what I’ll address.

The Mediterranean style diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats as core foods. Within the main portion of the pyramid you will find traditional foods such as olive oil, pine nuts (pignolias), broad beans, lentils, chickpeas, barley, oats, potatoes, hard winter wheat, apricots, dates, figs, grapes, melons, pomegranates, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, peppers, tomato, and zucchini.

Oldways, one of the founders of the original Mediterranean pyramid states “Fish and seafood are typically eaten at least twice a week, and dairy foods – especially fermented dairy like yogurt and traditional cheese – are eaten frequently in moderate portions. Eggs and occasional poultry are also part of the Mediterranean Diet, but red meat and sweets are rarely eaten.”

As far as weight maintenance goes, research shows a definite positive effect for those following a Mediterranean style diet. I could list all sorts of individual studies, but researchers have already compiled all of the findings into a summary2. Weight and body mass index tend to go down (coupled with exercise and energy restriction) on a Mediterranean diet, especially if done over 6 months. This would seem surprising, given that fat provides over 30% of calories. The power of whole grains, ample produce and limited saturated fat are the trick!

Besides the change in lifestyle (shopping/cooking), I’d consider your gut happiness in transitioning from one diet to another. A drastic change in intake can upset your intestines. If you have a sensitive stomach, consider incorporating only a few new items daily. After 2 or 3 weeks you should have fully transitioned into your new dietary pattern.

References:

  1. “A Proposed Explanation of World Dietary Patterns” by HG Kariel in Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers © 1964 University of Hawai’i Press, Vol. 26, pp. 43-50.
  2. Mediterranean diet and weight loss: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Esposito K,et al. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2011 Feb;9(1):1-12. doi: 10.1089/met.2010.0031. Epub 2010 Oct 25.

– Debbie J., MS, RD

This article should not replace any exercise program or restrictions, any dietary supplements or restrictions, or any other medical recommendations from your primary care physician. Before starting any exercise program or diet, make sure it is approved by your doctor.

Some questions have been edited for length and/or clarity.


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