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'Testing the waters' of the Mediterranean diet

2/27/2020 by Michaeleen Burroughs, MS, RDN, LD

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The Mediterranean diet. You've heard about it in the news, read about it on the internet and maybe you have a friend who's raved about it. What makes this diet so popular and is it right for you? These FAQs can give you answers as you consider "testing the waters" of this heart-healthy eating plan. 

What's the Mediterranean diet? 

This diet, which is really a life-long eating style, blends the basics of healthy eating with the traditional flavors and cooking methods of the Mediterranean. Interest in it began in the 1960s as data started showing that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea than in the U.S. and northern Europe. More studies backed up these findings. 

Here are the basics of eating the Mediterranean way: 

  • Daily consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats
  • Weekly intake of fish, poultry, beans and eggs
  • Moderate portions of dairy products
  • Limited intake of red meat
  • Sharing meals and enjoying a glass of red wine with family and friends
  • Being physically active

What are healthy fats?

Healthy fats are a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet. They're eaten instead of less healthy fats, such as saturated and trans fats, which contribute to heart disease. Healthy fats include: 

  • Olive oil. Primary source of added fat. Lowers total cholesterol, as well as LDL or "bad" cholesterol. 
  • Nuts, seeds. Contain monounsaturated fat. 
  • Fatty fish. Mackerel, herring, sardines, water-packed albacore tuna, salmon and lake trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that may reduce inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids also help decrease triglycerides, reduce blood clotting and decrease the risk of stroke and heart failure. 

What about wine?

If you've ever been to countries like France, Italy or Spain, you know that wine is a feature of their daily meals. The Mediterranean diet allows red wine in moderation: 

  • Women: One 5-ounce serving per day. 
  • Men: No more than two 5-ounce servings per day. 
  • Remember these recommendations are limits per day — not an average per week. 

Do I have to give up snacks?

Snacks — small amounts of food eaten between meals — can be part of the Mediterranean diet. Tasty and satisfying treats of fruit, whole grains, veggies, nuts and seeds follow the Mediterranean eating plan. Here are some easy ideas: air-popped popcorn, peanut butter and celery, veggies with toasted red pepper hummus, cottage cheese or Greek yogurt with berries, tomato slices/olives/whole wheat bread drizzled with olive oil or up to 14 almonds. 

How do I get started?

If you'd like to test the waters of the Mediterranean diet, here are some steps for taking the plunge: 

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim for seven to 10 servings a day of fruit and vegetables. Fill up to half your place with fruit and veggies. Meet your servings my choosing fruits and veggies as snacks. 
  • Opt for whole grains. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta. Experiment with other whole grains, such as bulgur and faro. 
  • Use those healthy fats. Olive oil is a good replacement for butter when cooking. Instead of putting butter or margarine on bread, try dipping it in flavored olive oil. 
  • Eat more seafood. Eat fish twice a week: fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Grilled fish is delicious and simple to prepare. Avoid deep-fried fish. 
  • Reduce red meat. Substitute fish, poultry or beans for meat. If you eat meat, make sure it's lean and keep portions small. 
  • Enjoy some dairy. Drink a glass of low-fat milk with one meal a day, eat low-fat Greek or plain yogurt and small amounts of a variety of cheeses. 
  • Spice it up. Herbs and spices boost flavor and lessen the need for salt. 
  • Do watch your portions. Too much of even a healthy food can add pounds. For example, nuts have good health benefits, but it's easy to eat more than 1,000 calories in one sitting. Stick to a small handful — 1-1.5 ounces — of nuts per day. That means the 30-ounce tub of nuts form Costco should last a person an entire month! A good source for learning about portions is ChooseMyPlate.gov
  • Do move more! Diet and movement work together for overall health, stress reduction, better sleep and personal enjoyment. 

Need some meal ideas? Here are a few: 

  • Breakfast: whole grain hot cereal and a banana; whole-grain English muffin, almond butter and a grapefruit; shredded wheat, skim milk, blackberries
  • Lunch: two quinoa cakes, low-fat cottage cheese, fresh pineapple; turkey chili, blackberries, whole-wheat cracker thins; baked cod, mixed veggie salad, large peach
  • Dinner: cooked chicken and asparagus tossed with penne, side salad of veggies and greens with balsamic dressing; five butternut squash ravioli tossed with braised kale and cherry tomatoes and a dash of olive oil, roasted Brussels sprouts; grilled chicken, wild rice pilaf with cranberries and walnuts, steamed broccoli

Check out more recipes and ideas from Mayo Clinic. 

The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat for life, not just as a "quick fix". Many people who switch to this style of eating say they'll never eat any other way. 

Michaeleen Burroughs, MS, RDN, LD, has worked win Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson in Family Medicine for 20 years. She currently helps patients at Mayo Family Clinics Northwest, Southeast and Kasson, Baldwin Family Medicine and Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.