When people hear the word ‘diet,’ they tend to think of temporary food restrictions and exercise regimens geared towards weight loss. However, the alternate, original definition of diet just refers to a person’s or group’s eating pattern. The duality of the word can generate a bit of confusion, especially when talking about the Mediterranean diet, whose emphasis on healthy fats might confuse those trying to slim down. The diet is not a plan for rapid weight loss but rather a lifestyle, modeled after that of Italians and Greeks, designed to improve general health – which could include shedding some extra pounds.
Mediterranean cuisine emphasizes fresh produce, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats including olive oil, nuts, and fish. As the Mayo Clinic’s guidelines explain, “the focus of the Mediterranean diet isn’t on limiting total fat consumption, but rather on choosing healthier types of fat.” This fat substitution means swapping butter for olive oil and red meats for seafood as well as seeking out low-fat dairy products. Olive oil and fish are the two features most commonly associated with the diet not only because they’re so prominent in it but because they respectively contain antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease blood clotting and regulate blood pressure. To further promote heart health, the diet discourages eating processed foods (especially meat), added sugars, refined grains and oils, and trans fats while encouraging the use of spices rather than salt to flavor meals. It even allows for moderate red wine consumption to lower risk of heart disease.
In addition to lessening the risk of heart disease, the Mediterranean diet has been recently linked to improved brain function thanks to a study published earlier this week that compared participants’ performance on a variety of cognitive tests before and after following specific diets over a few years. Participants on a low-fat diet suffered a decline in many aspects of cognitive performance, whereas those on the Mediterranean diet supplemented by healthy fats from nuts and oils improved their performances on various cognitive function and memory tests. More investigation is needed into how exactly the diet affects the brain, but the scientists have some preliminary hypotheses, such as that antioxidants might counteract stress. This study has made the rounds on several news outlets because it serves as a breakthrough in connecting heart disease prevention to brain health and suggests that diet can be used to preemptively prevent cognitive deterioration.
Of course, eating nutritious foods isn’t enough to guarantee a healthy body. For one thing, eating any foods in excess or consuming an imbalance of nutrients can be harmful, which is why the Mediterranean diet encourages eating in a social setting. While some people argue that being surrounded by fellow eaters stimulates them to consume more, the logic used by proponents of the diet is that of the slow meal: conversation distracts you from your food, allowing you to eat more slowly and your body to register its fullness. The diet also includes regular, at least moderate exercise as the vital counterpart to mindful eating in maintaining a healthy body.
Interested in trying this magical diet? Here’s a helpful guide to get you started.