No, we’re not talking about ambrosia (or ambrosia salad). In Greek mythology, ambrosia was said to be the food of the gods. They ate it to maintain their immortality. And, if a mortal were to eat it, that person’s time on earth would be over. Mythology aside, the Mediterranean diet has been shown by scientific observation to lead to better health and lower rates of heart disease. If you’re looking for a healthy diet for weight loss, look no further.
The history of the Mediterranean diet
As the name suggests, the Mediterranean diet comes from looking at how people historically ate in the countries around the Mediterranean. The modern American version of the Mediterranean diet, which has high amounts of cheese and refined carbs, is not historical to the region. If you walk down the pasta aisle of a grocery store, you’ll find items with high amounts of sodium and refined wheat. It’s a similar story when you walk down the pizza aisle.
The cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is the tradition of farming and fishing in the area. Most people in the countries of Greece, Italy, Spain and Northern Africa didn’t have access to large amounts of red meat for thousands of years. They gathered nuts and fruit, worked the ground for grains and vegetables and also fished for local sources of protein.
What’s in the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet can vary depending on what region you look at, but the basics are: high amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and good fats (olive oil), medium amounts of fish and shellfish, and low amounts of red meat, sugar, and unhealthy fats. Other tips:
- Plants are the primary food, including legumes and nuts
- Carbs should be whole grains as much as possible
- Fish is a good source of protein and provides omega-3 fatty acids
- Focus on eating more vegetables than meats
- Fats are OK, but use olive oil and other healthy oils in place of butter, trans-fats or hydrogenated oils
- Season your food with herbs instead of excessive salt
- Optional: up to one glass of red wine per day
Fish, shellfish, and nuts are the main sources of protein when you’re on this diet. You have many choices when you’re shopping for fish at the market, so try to stick with seafood that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Some great choices are salmon, oysters (the smoked ones are tasty), arctic char, anchovies, and mackerel. It can be hard to develop a taste for anchovies, but did you know that the classic Caesar salad recipe is made with anchovies in the dressing? Taking this cue, you could incorporate a little of anchovies into a spread for a savory flavor that won’t overpower.
On the Mediterranean diet, bread should be eaten with olive oil, instead of butter or dairy spreads. You should also use olive or coconut oil to cook with, avoiding canola oil or butter. Not only does olive oil contribute to a healthier heart, but it is full of flavor. Try cooking whole grain pasta and seasoning it with garlic, kalamata olives, and olive oil for a fresh and healthy Mediterranean meal.
Even if you try the Mediterranean diet just for fun, without limiting your calorie intake, you’ll experience benefits. The substitution of olive oil for other fats is a huge reason to try it out. Currently, cardiovascular diseases account for the highest number of deaths in the industrialized world. But olive oil has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, both in people who’ve never had the disease and people who have survived it.
This is because olive oil is able to reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. LDL is the bad cholesterol, and can stimulate the build up of fat deposits in your arteries. High triglycerides can contribute to the hardening of your artery walls, a condition known as arteriosclerosis. Over time, olive oil can reduce the amount of LDL and triglycerides in your system, which is awesome.
Olive oil in baking
Another thing you can do to get more olive oil in your diet is to bake with it. You can directly substitute olive oil for butter in recipes by adding just a bit less olive oil than the amount of butter. Follow this guide when substituting:
- For ½ cup of butter, substitute ¼ cup and two tablespoons of olive oil
- For ⅔ cup of butter, substitute ½ cup of olive oil
- For ¾ cup of butter, substitute ½ cup and one tablespoon of olive oil
- For 1 cup of butter, substitute ¾ cup of olive oil
Using olive oil in baking will add a new depth of flavor to breads, cakes and cookies, just be sure to use a whole-grain flour and low sugar recipe to stay on the diet.
In 2013, the University of Barcelona conducted a study that connected the dots between the Mediterranean diet and healthy lives. They worked with over 7000 participants to determine whether the presence of olive oil and nuts in a diet affected the occurrence of heart disease. And they found that it did. The study followed each participant for about five years. Olive oil was shown to lessen the chance of cardiovascular disease, and to also prevent a second heart attack in people who already had one.
Later on, in 2017, the same researchers released a new document that softens the claim they presented in their original finding just a bit. This was because they found that some of their participants were related to others, and therefore the experiment was not strictly random. However, when they corrected for this flaw, their original findings did not change significantly. You can read about the study here.
The Mediterranean life
One aspect of the Mediterranean diet emphasizes community. Historically, people in the region would enjoy the largest meal of the day with family and friends, often with wine as well. The wine is optional (though red wine Does have antioxidant benefits).
Life is meant to be enjoyed, and even if you have a different diet than your friends, you can make a point to spend time together and relax. Our modern lifestyles tend to be full of work with little time to stop and take a breath. When you start your Mediterranean diet, imagine that you live right next to the sea. What would your day look like? How would you spend your down time? Increased leisure time on the Mediterranean diet has actually shown some links with a happy life. It’s a diet and lifestyle that is easier for many people to do and is closer to how our ancestors lived and ate.
How to use the diet for weight loss
The Mediterranean diet is already a great diet on its own. If you are looking to lose weight on this diet, try to limit your calories to less than what your body needs on a daily basis. This diet puts an emphasis on beans and nuts, both of which are great for keeping you full for a longer time.
Lentils and whole grains also provide long-lasting energy, and you can use these ingredients to your benefit. Lean protein like fish also provides great energy for exercising and building muscle. Some bodybuilders have even been known to eat a strict diet of fish, brown rice, and vegetables, all of which fit in our Mediterranean diet.
Just switching your fats to olive oil can do a great deal for your weight loss goals. In the same study we mentioned earlier, they found that participants who were supplemented with extra virgin olive oil lost the most weight over the five years. Keep in mind though, this was over a long period. To get the most out of the Mediterranean diet, make sure that you only consume the fats that are in olive oil, nuts, avocados, and other natural monounsaturated fat sources.
No, fish jerky probably isn’t a good snack to have whiled on this diet (because of high sodium levels). Snacking can definitely be the downfall of any diet. You’ve worked for a long time, been exercising each day, but then all of a sudden, you’re low on groceries and super hungry. What do you reach for? Probably the easiest thing to eat, which might be a frozen corn dog left over from before you went on this diet.
The good news is that the Mediterranean diet does offer some great snack options. You probably already snack on hummus and chips, just trade those chips out for baked whole grain chips or even beet chips. Another good option is the classic peanut butter with celery. Peanut butter is great because it’s a good source of protein, just be careful that you don’t binge eat the whole jar late at night.
In fact, any kind of nut butter makes a good dipping partner for veggies. On the Mediterranean diet, nuts are one of the great sources of good fats, so it’s always a good idea to have some on hand for when you get hungry. But try to skip the trail mixes which have as much chocolate and sugar as protein.
We hope this guide has been helpful for you. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve dieted. When this is the case, it could be a good idea to do a short detox before switching to a more long-term diet like the Mediterranean diet. Read more about doing a healthy detox here