Mediterranean Diet Experiment: Why the ‘world’s healthiest diet’ is here to stay. Local nutrition consultant Danielle Omar shares her expertise on why the diet remains a favorite.
To say I was doubtful of my success when first starting the Mediterranean diet would be an understatement. The word “diet” itself is enough to leave me craving ice cream and, as a college student, I admit to never turning down late-night pancake dinners with friends. But the Mediterranean diet, which mimics the social and robust lifestyle of those in Greece, Spain and Southern Italy, has routinely ranked among the top diets for decades—so I decided to give it a shot for three weeks.
Danielle Omar, an integrative dietitian, nutrition consultant and healthy lifestyle blogger, specializes in helping women who have dieted their whole lives “get off the diet train, lose the food guilt and discover what works for their unique body and lifestyle.” In this true manner, the Mediterranean-style meal plan offers direction towards a healthy lifestyle rather than crash dieting or extreme restrictions. No food groups are completely off the table, including red wine in moderation and the occasional dessert. In Mediterranean culture, exercising regularly, appreciating the meal on the dinner table and those around it is the crux of healthy living.
The plant-based meal plan focuses on adding vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes to daily intake. It discourages artificial sugars except for special occasions and limits dairy. However, there is no calorie counting involved—only guidelines that resemble the classic food pyramid. “When you’re trying to lose weight you cannot focus strictly on calories, the quality of the food you’re consuming is just as important,” says Omar. “In my experience, when you’re consistently filling your plate with lean protein, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts, you’re more satisfied with smaller portions and you’re better able to listen to your body’s hunger cues.”
Because of their proximity to the sea, the leading source of protein for the diet’s original community is fish. The people of the Mediterranean are also known to eat poultry while limiting their intake of red meat. “In general, red meats contain higher amounts of saturated fat than leaner protein sources like chicken, fish and vegetable proteins,” says Omar. “Unlike the types of fat found in red meat and processed meats, the unsaturated fats in fish, omega-3 fatty acids, help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
Considering the plant-based guidelines and my vegetarian tendencies, my personal experience adjusting was far simpler than expected. My go-to breakfast became an omelet with veggies or an english muffin with peanut butter. Lunch was typically a veggie sandwich on whole grain bread or a fruit based-smoothie. For dinner, I typically ate whole-grain pasta with veggies or a colorful salad. I switched my afternoon snack of chips to nuts, and while I certainly missed my pre-packaged guilt foods, I was shocked that I actually felt full for longer. And in the true spirit of Mediterranean dining, the best meals were the ones I invited my friends and family to join in on.
The results of the diet yield more than just weight loss; research shows the diet reduces the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This is largely credited to the diet’s devotion to olive oil, which is a staple to the diets of those in the region. “Extra virgin olive oil is the best type of olive oil because it contains mostly heart-healthy monounsaturated fat,” says Omar. “Studies show that the fatty acids and antioxidants in olive oil have powerful health benefits. They can help reduce inflammation in the body and lower your risk for heart disease.”
Foreseably, the most grueling part was cutting out the extra sugar I forgot I was consuming. This starts with my very needed daily coffee, which barely resembles coffee by the time I add cream and sugar. But to my surprise, as my three weeks progressed my caffeine addiction seemed less intense: the cleaner eating provided me energy that eventually lead me to drastically reduce my intake.
That wasn’t the only asset: because the diet wasn’t restrictive, I never became frustrated and gave up. “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on, and the easiest way to achieve that is by focusing on small changes to the way you eat,” says Omar. “Start slow and work on one meal or one behavior change at a time. Don’t try to change everything at once or you will feel like you’re on a diet and it becomes all about restriction and deprivation. Start substituting some unhealthier choices with healthier ones and over time these small changes will add up to new, healthier habits that are sustainable long term.”
When I visited Italy for the first time this spring, I marveled at how the locals’ routines didn’t revolve around the carbohydrate heaven they lived in. Our culture’s relationship to food is simply different; it can be an afterthought and I am certainly guilty of putting food into my body without fully enjoying it. While my three-week trial was not enough to make major lifestyle changes, the Mediterranean diet led me to become more conscious and intentional with what I eat and how I do so. As an Italian proverb says, “eat to live and not live to eat.”
If you are yearning for a diet that won’t judge you for having red wine with dinner, you’ve found it. Now that’s amore.