From keto to Whole30, a steady stream of new food philosophies always seems to be cropping up. This may leave us feeling frustrated, confused and slightly overwhelmed. One of the questions I hear from my private practice clients is “What is the best diet?”
While individual health needs dictate dietary recommendations, I tend to guide our conversation toward the Mediterranean-style of eating or pattern. I like it for three primary reasons.A) It’s rich in dietary fiber
B) It focuses on fresh vs. processed
C) It encourages variety as opposed to restriction
First, what is the Mediterranean Diet?
Out of 41 different diets, the U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the Best Diet Overall in 2019. Plant-focused, its foundation includes nuts, olive oil, seeds, produce and whole grains. It also incorporates lean proteins such as fish and beans while giving adults the option of including a moderate amount of red wine. Also, the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are backed by science; studies link it to reducing the risk of Type II Diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. This is in part due to the foods being high in fiber, minimally processed and varied. It’s also important to note that this isn’t a “diet” -- it’s a pattern of eating that isn’t calorie-driven. Let’s call the diet a “pattern” instead and explore some simple swaps to make your next meal more Med-friendly.
While we may know that fiber supports a healthy gut, it also plays a role in lowering blood cholesterol levels, helping us maintain a healthy weight and lowering the risk of developing certain diseases. The fiber we find in foods also keeps us feeling fuller for longer and keeps appetite and cravings in check. Current recommendations are 25 - 38 grams of fiber per day for women and men, respectively. The Mediterranean pattern is chock full of these foods, including quinoa, oats, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Fun fact: Most fiber is found in the skin of fruits and vegetables. Next time when roasting or cooking your veggies, skip the peeler to up your intake.
Keeping it fresh
While it may be easy to grab a pre-made sandwich or salad, these foods often fall on the American Heart Association’s Salty Six list -- the top hidden sources of sodium in the American diet. The average American is eating nearly 50% more salt than is currently recommended. Our goal is 2,300 mg or about 1 tsp per day.* Those milligrams can add up fast so becoming familiar with top sources is key. While we all need some sodium for proper functioning of our bodies, too much negatively impacts blood pressure and promotes fluid retention, stressing the heart and other internal organs. Sodium, which enhances the flavor of foods and acts as a preservative, is found in many processed and prepared foods. These foods tend to be highly palatable and stimulate our taste buds. When this happens, we crave more of that food and jumpstart our appetite which, over time, may lead to weight gain as we eat more. This one of the reasons why sometimes it’s difficult to have just one chip versus the whole bag.
Keep an eye on how much of these foods sneak into your weekly routine: breads, pizza, sandwiches, soups, wraps, prepackaged snacks, cheeses and cured meats. Since the Mediterranean pattern focuses on whole foods, swapping out processed foods for fresh (or sometimes frozen!) can help reduce sodium intake.
Fun Fact: Look for “low sodium,” “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” on food labels when comparing different brands and flavors. You may be surprised by how much sodium you can cut from your day by making simple product swaps.
Ditch the “diet” mindset
Some diet trends encourage the elimination of certain foods or food groups. While this may help drive awareness of certain ingredients in food products, if you’re constantly eliminating one food, it may lead to a nutrient deficiency across time or the feeling that you’re constantly restricting yourself. The Mediterranean pattern, on the other hand, encourages variety and all food groups.
Five ways to make your next meal more Med-friendly
- Swap out saturated fat sources like butter and coconut oil for heart-healthy unsaturated fat sources like olive or avocado oil.
- Mix in fiber-rich tofu or beans with lean cuts of meat (chicken, turkey vs. lamb, beef) to help limit saturated fat intake and boost fiber intake.
- Pick produce that’s in season or frozen produce without any additives. These fruits and veggies tend to be more cost-friendly and nutrient-dense.
- Enjoy cooked and raw veggies to get a blend of different antioxidants that help lower inflammation in the body.
- Replace quick oats for steel cut oats and look for “whole grain” listed on ingredients to get more whole grains into your day.
For me, the words of author and food activist Michael Pollan neatly package this pattern: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
*1,500 mg per day for adults 50 years or older or those with hypertension.