The mediterranean diet (M.D) has long been considered one of the best ways to eat, being simple to adhere to and allowing for a lot of "fun" foods. Every time it gets mentioned, the idyllic picture of a warm summer day in Southern Europe arises and someone always makes a comment about how people in Greece live longer.
It's benefits seem to be numerous, ranging from cancer prevention to extending one's life span.
The cool thing about this is, being from France and having travelled along the mediterranean quite often, I was able to see first hand what the fuss is all about. I've been lucky to visit all of the south of France, the Spanish coast line, Portugal and Greece.
The first thing that we should note is that this diet should be called the Greek Diet. The ingredients are similar in all those countries, but the M.D as it has been marketed to us is high in olive oil and cheeses like feta, which are two abundant ingredients in Greece and not the other countries. Ok now that we have this little anecdotal detail out of the way, let's see what this diet is all about.
Foods you can eat
The foods focused on this diet are:
- whole grains
- protein mainly from fish and poultry
- healthy fats
The M.D focuses a lot on veggies. Typically, your appetizer will be a salad, and you will also have veggies in your main course. The dessert will usually be dairy in the form of a fresh cheese.
The most common healthy fat in this diet is olive oil, although olives are used a lot as well.
Let's stop and look at this list of foods again. I've seen these recommendations many times over, and it also follows the eat it, dig it, hunt it rule. When considering if you should eat something, as yourself if you can either dig up that food, pick it from a tree or hunt it. If the answer is no, you know it's been processed in some sort of way and you can find healthier alternatives. The rule has it's exceptions of course but is a good quick way to know your food is on the healthy side.
Foods you don’t eat
Sodium is limited and replaced by herbs and spices for flavouring.
Red meat is consumed very rarely and butter is replaced by olive oil.
This point ties in very closely to the next point, about the lifestyle. People that adhere to the M.D, aka people in southern Europe, have access to fresh foods very easily. They prefer the fresh foods over processed alternatives or cheap chain restaurants. You will rarely see a fast food restaurant in the smaller towns of Europe.
The mediterranean lifestyle can be described as a lot more relaxed than the one we are accustomed in North America. Every thing is less frantic. Sure, there is the stereotypical idea of people being lazy, but I would say it’s more about having different priorities.
Regardless, what is so different? From what I’ve seen and experienced first hand from my year over there, these are the main points I personaly noticed:
1. People walk a lot. Maybe this is due to poorer public transportation than we have here or because the weather is better over there, whatever the reason, people are walking a lot. This is important because of the energy balance rule. Even though they don't hit the gym, these people are getting in some sort of light activity daily.
2. Daily grocery shopping. Not every one does it, but it’s a lot more common than here. People will grocery shop in the morning for the ingredients they need that day. Again, the abundance of fresh produce and it’s distributors make is very easy to do so. There is also less need for preservatives and other modifications to foods.
3. Smaller portions. Perhaps the more important point to take away from this list. The portion sizes are small! Usually there is an appetizer in the form of a salad, a main course with protein and veggies and maybe some whole grains and a desert which is usually fresh cheese. The three courses combined are filling, but each one is pretty small.
4. Eating is a lot more social than in North America. People take their time to eat and it’s usually the occasion for everyone in the house to get together. Meals last a lot longer. Again, I think this is a good difference in priorities. People take the time to make and enjoy good food. Read that again: people take the time to enjoy good food.
I get so many people that tell me they just don't have the time for making food or even eating! It's not about the time you have but what you do with it that counts.
5. Fresh markets all over the place. I love checking them out, the foods come straight from the farm and are delicious. Combine this with point number two, and you have the healthiest type of foods you can have. They usually run on Sundays although you can find smaller fresh markets during the week. Imagine a town plaza that gets filled with tents and stalls that sell a variety of fresh produce.
I always say that dieting isn't the right way to think about food. It's about the lifestyle. The M.D reflects the Mediterranean lifestyle and if you want to try it out, focus more about learning how people live their day to day life rather than what they eat.
Conclusion: how to make it work for you
The mediterranean diet is nothing crazy, it basically follows the pick it, dig it or hunt it rule. But more importantly, it's how the people in that region live combined with what they eat that makes this work for them. In order to replicate that, try to incorporate the points listed above in you life.
Walk as much as you can, if you drive to your grocery store simply because you have a lot of bags to carry, just buy yourself one of those grocery bags with wheels. Yes you will look like a senior citizen but they’re cool to and they get their steps in, so get it. If you use your car to save time, ask yourself time for what? Doesn’t your health deserve some time as well? Aim to walk for a at least 2 hours a day. Some of you will do that at work and some of you will need to get this outside of work hours.
Grocery shopping daily is up to you, I personally don’t do it, and I am more an advocate of bigger grocery shopping trips and meal prepping. You can still meal prep fresh foods and they will stay relatively fresh for a few days. I grocery shop a MINIMUM of twice a week to keep my foods as fresh as possible. Once on Sunday and once on Wednesday.
Use the hands portion rule to eat proper sized meal. Portion size can easily get out of control, it's so tempting to think "oh this looks so good I'm going to eat my own weight of it". Using a standardized portion control mechanism will help you stay on track more easily. Another thing I like about this approach is that it gives you an easy way to decrease or increase your portion sizes according to the results you see on yourself. Haven't lost weight in two weeks? Try eating half a handful of carbs instead of a full one and see how that affects you. Haven't put on any weight recently? Double you protein portion. It gives you a quick go to rule that's easily modified according to your needs.
Healthy fats: typically the size of your thumb can be 1/4 avocado, 2 tbsp any oil or a very small handful of nuts.
If you healthy fats comes from salmon, use the protein portion measure the amount
Remember guys that it’s not about dieting but finding a lifestyle that works for you!
Enjoy the gains,