— By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global
Island of Crete, Greece
It’s lunchtime on Crete, home of the original Mediterranean diet. Because schools are closed during lunch hour, two children—and their dad who is a farmer—are home for lunch. The simple fare on the family’s typical Greek table consists of an array of small, savory, colorful plates of food that will be enjoyed and shared over the next hour or so.
The main course: a vegetable casserole made with wild greens and other seasonal produce, supplemented with a salad and paximadi (a twice-baked bread, traditionally composed of 90% barley or chickpea flour and 10% whole wheat). Atop the whole-grain paximadi is a sprinkling of feta cheese, chopped olives, tomatoes, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil. Dessert is slices of fresh orange from trees on the island. Some other families on the island are also highlighting vegetables, but are including small servings of whole, grilled fish or poultry in their meal; and fresh-made lentils flavored with extra-virgin Greek olive oil and a sprinkling of raw pine nuts, plus some sesame seeds. Tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic) is also on the table.
Sweets, most typically made with honey, are consumed perhaps a few times weekly and during special holidays.1 Low to moderate amounts of mostly whole grilled fish and dairy foods—with some poultry—are enjoyed weekly, as are occasional (0-4) eggs per week. Low amounts of red meat are included monthly,2 while refined, processed foods (cookies, cake, white bread, fried foods, etc.) are avoided. A glass or two of red wine is typically enjoyed socially during meals.3
In other words, the Mediterranean diet embraces fresh, whole, plant-based foods with small servings of animal-based food. Processed foods (think fries, pizza, white bread, cookies, cakes, and so on) that are high in refined carbohydrates, and sweet-salty-fatty foods (SSF foods), replete with unhealthy fats, are not include. And then there are these invisible Mediterranean ‘nutrients’: enjoying fresh food with family and friends, eating moderate amounts without counting calories and carbs, figuring fat grams, etc.2
Such social, pleasurable enjoyment of fresh food inspired Robert E. Graham, MD, MPH, an integrative medicine physician in Brooklyn, New York, to describe Mediterranean meals as “a Mediterranean lifestyle,” because how they eat is just as important as what they eat: “with gusto, flavor…with family members.”4
The Healing Power of Mediterranean Meals
For the third year in a row, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the #1 best diet because of its host of body-mind health benefits.5 A sampling: weight loss, heart health, diabetes prevention and control, protection from Alzheimer’s and certain cancers, lower odds of depression and anxiety, and more.
Here are some studies showing the power of the Mediterranean diet to prevent, manage, even reverse three major diet-related chronic conditions with which millions struggle: overweight, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Lose weight. A study published in The Lancet showed that those following the Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet (the control group); those who added extra-virgin olive oil to their meals lost the most weight.6 In yet another study about the Mediterranean diet and weight, the Mediterranean-diet group of 322 moderately obese middle-aged participants lost weight—as did those in the low-fat and low-carb groups.7
Halt heart disease. Researchers enrolled a total of 7,447 persons (age range, 55 to 80 years) at high risk for heart disease into two groups: one followed a Mediterranean diet with extra-virgin olive oil; the other group was assigned to a Mediterranean diet with nuts. Both groups on the lowered their frequency of major cardiovascular events (such as abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias; coronary artery disease, or narrowing of the arteries; heart attacks, etc.)8
Derail Diabetes. Studies suggest the Mediterranean diet may be a path to preventing and managing type 2 diabetes. When researchers followed 418 people ages 55 to 80 without diabetes for four years, those participants who followed the Mediterranean diet had a 52 percent lower risk for type 2 diabetes—even if they didn’t lose weight or exercise more.9 Yet another study that reviewed 20 randomized clinical trials of those with type 2 diabetes found that the Mediterranean diet improved blood sugar control more than low-carbohydrate, low-glycemic index, and high-protein diets.10
These studies tell us this: A diet of mostly fresh, whole, plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds), with smaller servings of fresh, chemical-free animal-based foods (dairy, fish, poultry, meat) can keep us healthy. Add the harder-to-measure but traditional Mediterranean “nutrients” of enjoying leisurely meals with others, in a pleasant atmosphere, and deep joy and pleasure in eating, and you have all the ingredients to create nourishing Mediterranean meals.
Meet SAD: The Opposite of Mediterranean Meals
The health-full foods that comprise the Mediterranean diet are the exact opposite of the chemical-laden food products (ultra-processed, refined, SSF foods, etc.) and eating behaviors (often alone, while working, stressed, depressed, etc.) that make up much of the health-harming standard American diet (SAD).
This is the standard American diet (SAD) in a nutshell: High-fat, high-sugar, high-salt. Calorie- and chemical-dense. Processed, fast foods. Refined carbohydrates. Sodas. Lots of red meat. Oversized. Unbalanced. Perhaps a breakfast bar, donut, or sweetened cereal for breakfast; super-sized servings of Chicken McNuggets or a burger with fries and a soft drink for lunch; perhaps a bag of potato chips and a Coke for a snack; and maybe a pepperoni-and-sausage pizza delivered from your nearby pizza parlor for dinner.
Fast fooders. The elements of these SAD fast and processed foods have one thing in common: they are typical of junk food, a slang term referring to fare that’s high in calories, salt, sugar, fat, and additives but low in health-enhancing nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals—hence the term empty calories. Today, 44 percent of Americans eat fast food once per week, 20 percent twice per week, and 14 percent consume it three or more times weekly. And 91 percent—at least 290 million Americans—completely miss the mark of meeting the U.S. dietary guidelines of a half to two cups of vegetables per day. Same with fruit: only 12 percent of Americans consume one-and-a-half to two servings per day. In other words, most Americans eat the standard American diet (SAD) of mostly processed animal-based foods with few, or no plant-based foods.11,12
Binge eaters. The number of “fast fooders” is amplified by the millions more who struggle with variations of disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders by regularly turning to large amounts of junk food, such as ultra-processed ice cream, chips, fried foods, donuts, oversized pizza, sodas, and more. These calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, health-harming SAD “food” choices—often consumed alone and “in secret”—are linked to the alarming increase in obesity and other diet-linked, mind-body chronic conditions, from heart disease and diabetes to depression, and so on)13-16
The takeaway: Clearly, SAD foods are the opposite of healthful Mediterranean meals, with their abundant array of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds; local extra-virgin olive oil; small servings of fresh fish, dairy, and poultry; and occasional servings (a few times a month) of red meat. And because meals are enjoyed and “flavored” with family and friendship, Mediterranean meals also offer social nourishment.
Reclaim Your Health with Mediterranean Meals
“Small changes in what you eat can make a big difference in your health” is popular advice today. I don’t agree. Research by behavioral scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD, and the writer of this article17-19—and hundreds of other studies—suggest that preventing, halting, and reversing overeating, overweight, and other diet-related conditions calls for making fresh, whole, plant-based foods—ergo, Mediterranean-like meals—your most-of-the-time—not occasional–way of eating.16 The healing secret? The nutrients (fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, etc.) in plant-based foods have the power to get you—and your waistline, immune system, 20brain, and body—on the road to health and healing.
Indeed, the Mediterranean diet is so healthful that, in response to the burgeoning obesity crisis in Israel—which worsened since the corona pandemic as millions turned to SAD sweets and snacks to cope with the stress and anxiety of a lockdown lifestyle— Israel’s Health Ministry recently released national guidelines that recommend the Mediterranean diet as thesustainable, health-enhancing way to eat. The chart highlights the Mediterranean diet’s fresh whole foods, while recommending that SAD processed foods to be avoided.21
I know. Change isn’t easy. Especially when it comes to food and eating. Since the social-isolation policy that has gone into effect, like many Israelis, millions of people worldwide have turned to high-carb, high-sugar, high-fat SAD “comfort foods” to cope. And they are gaining weight. And weakening their immune system. And making themselves vulnerable to a plethora of diet-related conditions.
The antidote? Commit to adopting a dietary lifestyle that empowers you to eat to prevent, even reverse, a multitude of food-related ailments and increase odds of boosting immunity, which in turn may decrease your risk of becoming ill from the coronavirus. And lowers odds of being overweight and obese. Or developing diabetes. And heart disease. And some cancers. And depression and anxiety. And other mind-body, diet-related chronic conditions.
In other words, the Mediterranean’s fresh, whole food dietary lifestyle holds the key to transforming your relationship with food and eating so you can reclaim your health…for life. If not now, when?
- Elena Paravantes, RDN, “The Complete Guide to the Authentic Mediterranean Diet,” https://www.olivetomato.com/complete-guide-authentic-mediterranean-diet/
- Elena Paravantes, OliveTomato.com. “When Greeks Eat,” https://www.olivetomato.com/when-greeks-eat/
- Murphy, K.J., Parletta, N. Implementing a Mediterranean-Style Diet Outside the Mediterranean Region. Curr Atheroscler Rep 20, 28 (2018).
- Sheryl Huggins Salomon, “8 Scientific Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet,” EveryDayHealth.com, March 19, 2019, https://www.everydayhealth.com/mediterranean-diet/scientific-health-benefits-mediterranean-diet/ (accessed June 28, 2021).
- U.S. News Staff, “U.S. News’ 39 Best Diets Overall,” U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 4, 2021, https://health.usnews.com/wellness/food/slideshows/best-diets-overall?onepage (accessed June 26, 2021).
- Ramon Estruch, “Effect of a high-fat Mediterranean diet on body weight and waist circumference: a prespecified secondary outcomes analysis of the PREDIMED randomised controlled trial”; Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2016; 4: 666–76 Published Online June 6, 2016 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2213-8587(16)30085-7, https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/landia/PIIS2213-8587(16)30085-7.pdf (accessed June 26, 2021)
- D Iris Shai, R.D., Ph.D. “Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet” N Engl J Med 2008; 359:229-241
- B. Estruch, Ramón MD, PhD et al, “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet,” N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290
- E. Jordi Salas-Salvado, MD, PhD, “Reduction in the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes With the Mediterranean Diet,” Diabetes Care 34:14–19, 2011
- F. Olubukola Ajala. “Systematic review and meta-analysis of different dietary approaches to the management of type 2 diabetes,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 97, Issue 3, March 2013, Pages 505–516
- Judith C. Rodriguez, “Fast Foods Health,” Gale Encyclopedia of Nutrition and Well Being (New York: Gale Group, 2004), www.healthline.com/galecontent/fast-foods.
- Bridget Murray, “Fast-Food Culture Serves Up Super-Size Americans,” Monitor on Psychology 32, no. 11 (2001): www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/fastfood.html.
- D. Mozaffarian, M. Katan, A. Ascherio, M. Stampfer, and W. C. Willett, “Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease,” New England Journal of Medicine 354, no. 1 (2006): 1601–13;
- F. Hu, R. van Dam, and S. Liu, “Diet and Risk of Type II Diabetes: The Role of Types of Fat and Carbohydrate,” Diabetologia 44, no. 7 (2001): 805–17;
- R. van Dam, M. Stampfer, W. Willett, F. Hu, and E. Rimm, “Dietary Fat and Meat Intake in Relation to Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Men,” Diabetes Care 25, no. 3 (2002): 417–24;
- A. Gosline, “Why Fast Foods Are Bad, Even in Moderation,” New Scientist, June 12, 2006, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9318-why-fast-foods-are-bad-even-in-moderation/.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42–50.
- Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020).
- Samantha N. Jensen, et al, “Isoflavone diet ameliorates experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis through modulation of gut bacteria depleted in patients with multiple sclerosis,” Science Advances, (2021), Vol. 7, no. 28.
- Jerusalem Post Staff, “Health Ministry releases chart detailing benefits of Mediterranean diet,” Jerusalem Post, June 11, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/health-science/health-ministry-releases-chart-detailing-benefits-of-mediterranean-diet-670778 (accessed June 26, 2021).