The Mediterranean Diet: Wine and More, in Moderation

The Mediterranean Diet: Wine and More, in Moderation

Another digest of diets

Whether you're working on a New Year's resolution, under orders from your doc to eat better or just want to explore some dietary options, we're moving beyond the fads and searching out the facts for these other programs.

Men and women in Mediterranean countries tend to have longer life spans and lower rates of chronic health conditions than most Americans. The Mediterranean diet was created as a way to leverage common eating habits of the region, ideally controlling disease while also lowering weight. But does this Old World diet bring anything new to the table?

Mediterranean basics

This diet has been cited by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 32 programs in the country.  It was developed through a joint effort of the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways, a nonprofit food group in Boston. Together, these two agencies created the Mediterranean diet pyramid which focuses on fruits, whole grains and fish over foods full of trans fats or artificial ingredients. It's worth noting that there is no single "plan" for this diet, but rather a series of food and lifestyle suggestions that can be adopted in moderation or in their entirety. Just as Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece all have different food staples, this diet is designed with flexibility in mind.

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What to eat, what to avoid

The diet is based around a set of concepts found in a variation of the traditional food pyramid. At the top are red meats and sweets, which should be eaten "less often," perhaps once per week. Next are poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt, which should be eaten in moderate portions each week or in small amounts daily. Fish and seafood occupy the second-largest tier of the pyramid and are recommended at least two times a week. Finally, the diet recommends that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts and legumes (along with herbs and spices) form the basis of almost every meal.

There are some interesting things about this pyramid:

  • Olive oil: In many Mediterranean cultures whole-grain bread dipped in olive oil is a common sight, instead of the white bread with butter or margarine more typically seen on American tables
  • Red wine: While some diet plans severely limit or eliminate alcohol, the Mediterranean plan allows for moderate amounts of red wine.

It's also worth noting that some depictions of the Mediterranean diet pyramid include an extra layer at the bottom. This doesn't describe food, but instead advocates eating meals with friends and family to make them a social affair, along with getting outside for a good dose of exercise. If there's one overriding characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, it's moderation: Eat well, be active and stay healthy.

Benefits of the diet

Although weight loss is not the primary goal, you will likely see moderate weight loss if you adopt most of the diet's philosophy. Choosing to build a "calorie deficit" into your diet — which means eating fewer calories than required to maintain your current weight — can encourage steady weight loss. But because this plan doesn't prescribe a particular amount or type of food, setting that deficit is a personal choice.

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Perhaps more importantly, the Mediterranean Diet has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease; the Mayo Clinic reports that an analysis of more than 1.5 million adults who tried the diet showed fewer cases of death from heart disease and cancer, along with lower rates of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, the New York Times reports that this diet can help control diabetes. Using this diet plus nuts rather than olive oil lowered risk factors for diabetes by 18 percent, while following the diet with olive oil showed a 40 percent risk factor reduction.

Ultimately, this diet plan focuses on an active and social lifestyle paired with healthy eating choices. Whole-grain bread is important, but butter and margarine are avoided; fish and poultry rank above red meat. Olive oil is critical for flavor, while moderate amounts of red wine and sweets can be enjoyed on a semi-regular basis. Don't expect drastic weight loss here, but rather improved overall health and better defense against disease.

As always, consult a professional nutritionist if you have any questions about the diet or need help modifying it to suit your lifestyle.

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