When it comes to an eating plan that gives you the best of both worlds — top-notch health benefits and delicious food — the Mediterranean diet is the way to go.
The Mediterranean diet plan is not a diet, per se. It is the way Europeans have been eating for centuries. Their diets naturally are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, healthy fats like olive oil and avocados, and moderate amounts of dairy. Foods devoid of nutrients, like sugary or processed foods and refined carbohydrates, are eaten minimally or avoided altogether.
As a result, those people who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to have much better overall health and are less prone to obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Studies have even shown some degree of protection against cognitive impairment and dementia.
To further examine the many factors that make the Mediterranean diet so important to health and quality of life, researchers recently published a study that followed 11,015 university graduates from Spain over a four-year period. Their goal was to assess whether following the Mediterranean diet was associated with mental and physical health related to quality of life.
Researchers gave participants a 136-item food frequency questionnaire at the start of the study, then again at two and four years, taking note of portion sizes for each of the food items. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was assessed using a scoring system that included nine components: vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, cereals, fish, meat and meat products, dairy products, moderate alcohol intake, and the ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids.
At the end of the study, participants with the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet reported:
- Better physical functioning
- Less pain
- Better general health
- Greater vitality and social functioning
- More energy
Additionally, those who followed the Mediterranean diet also happened to avoid cigarettes more frequently than those who did not.
Overall, researchers concluded that, “Adherence to the Mediterranean diet seems to be a factor importantly associated with a better health-related quality of life.”
Eat Like a European
Who wouldn’t want to take a trip to the Greek Isles to experience the Mediterranean diet firsthand?! Unfortunately, that’s not realistic for most of us. But the good news is that you can follow this eating plan right in your own home, and it’s not a daunting task at all.
The easiest way to start is by ditching the vegetable and canola oils and start using olive oil in your cooking, as well as in salads and for marinades.
Next, instead of snacking on cookies or chips, opt for cut up vegetables or a piece of fruit. Also, switch out two red meat-based dinners per week for cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, halibut or trout — and use olive oil and fresh spices as your marinade.
Try to consume less milk on a daily basis, and opt to get your dairy from Greek yogurt or cheese. And if you want to indulge in some alcohol on an occasional basis, choose heart-healthy red wine over beer or hard liquor.
Finally, do your best to eliminate as much sugar and processed food from your diet as possible. This may take some time to do, but the less junk food you eat, the closer you’ll get to eating like a true European. Soon enough, you’ll begin to notice a change in your health, appearance and overall quality of life.
 Sanchez P et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and quality of life in the SUN project. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012;66, 360–68.