You’ve likely heard of the “Mediterranean diet” at some point and that it’s a healthy way of eating. But is it really something you should consider following? And is the Mediterranean diet okay if you are gluten free? The answer to both of these questions is “yes.”
The Mediterranean diet was just announced as the best overall diet for 2019 in by US News and World Report. The diet also earned the top spot in other categories: best diet for healthy eating, best plant-based diet, best heart-healthy diets and easiest to follow.
You don’t need to live in Greece, Italy, Spain, or Portugal to “go Mediterranean.” Many of the foods on this plan are likely foods you already enjoy eating—and you probably have some in your kitchen right now. There’s no one “Mediterranean diet” because the foods eaten can vary, depending on region. However, here are the key foods that are part of this eating plan.
- Vegetables—and lots of them. Spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, eggplant, asparagus and peppers are just a few.
- Fruits—berries, melons, grapes, dates, bananas, figs, oranges and pears.
- Whole grains— amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, sorghum, teff and wild rice.
- Legumes—beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and peanuts.
- Nuts and seeds—almonds, pistachios, walnuts, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.
- Fish—salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, oysters, shrimp and crab.
- Poultry—chicken, turkey and duck.
- Eggs—chicken, duck and quail eggs.
- Fats—olives, olive oil, avocado, avocado oil and grapeseed oil.
- Dairy—yogurt and cheese.
Red meats and sweets are limited. Beverages include water and a glass of red wine each day.
Research points to a host of health benefits from Mediterranean-style eating. Here are the top five.
- Lower risk of heart attack and stroke: Limited red meat and sugar and a focus on heart-healthy unsaturated fat help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and boost good (HDL) cholesterol. In addition, olive oil, an abundance of vegetables and fruit and a daily glass of red wine are thought to protect against hardening of the arteries, thanks to their high antioxidant content.
- Prevention of Type 2 diabetes: A Mediterranean eating plan is full of fiber from fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Dietary fiber can slow the absorption of carbohydrate and improve blood glucose levels. Plus, higher-fiber eating plans can make it easier to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. In addition, nuts and olive oil may also improve glycemic control.
- Provides essential nutrients that may be lacking in a gluten-free diet: The gluten-free diet can tend to lack nutrients such as fiber, folate, magnesium, iron, calcium and vitamin D. The nutrients provided in a Mediterranean diet supply those nutrients without packing on the pounds.
- Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease: Almost six million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease and the most common form of dementia. People who have diabetes have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to people without diabetes: it’s thought that having diabetes causes changes in the brain that may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. In addition, having diabetes may put you at risk for cognitive impairment, a precursor of Alzheimer’s. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s or proven ways to prevent it at this time, a Mediterranean eating plan may lower the risk by helping you better manage your blood sugar, lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, and improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.
- Living a longer life: Eating healthfully isn’t the only way to live a longer life, but it sure can help. Studies show that a diet based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthful fats can increase longevity. By staving off heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic disease, it’s possible to live to a ripe, old age. By the way, healthy eating is key, but don’t forget about the role of physical activity, sleep and stress reduction, too.
Convinced that the Mediterranean diet is the way to go? Great. But how do you get started? It’s never easy to completely overhaul your diet overnight. Habits can die hard, and making any kind of dietary changes takes time and adjustments. Ease into your new eating plan with the following tips.
- Choose olive oil over butter or margarine for sautéing your foods.
- Mix up your own salad dressing using olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Aim to eat fish twice a week. Add some tuna to your lunchtime salad, and broil salmon for one of your dinner meals.
- Include a few pieces of fresh fruit at your meals or as snacks. Worried about the carbs? Berries, cherries, apples, and pears have lower glycemic index ratings than other types of fruit.
- Make a point to include at least two different vegetables at dinner.
- Try a meatless meal at least once a week. How about black beans and brown rice? Or a tomato, cucumber and white bean salad served with a side of couscous?
- Enjoy a healthy snack of plain Greek-style yogurt with a small handful of nuts.
While drinking red wine is encouraged on the Mediterranean eating plan, it’s always best to talk with your doctor or dietitian to make sure that drinking alcohol is safe for you.
Check out these Gluten-Free Living Mediterranean recipes
To learn more about the Mediterranean diet, including incorporating it with kids, taking it on the road and incorporating whole grains, read this Gluten-Free Living article by our registered dietitian nutritionist.