The Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied diets. And it’s EXCELLENT for general inflammation management. In fact, it's one of my core diets I recommend for clients who want to gradually lose weight, while reduce general inflammation and improve overall health. It's a great place to start.
For those with an autoimmune, type 2 diabetes or metbollic disorder (high blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure), this diet is not the best fit. You will learn why later on and what works better for you - so keep reading!
The Mediterranean Diet is based on the traditional foods of people living around the Mediterranean Sea – Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Croatia, Slovenia and Greece. It's a nod to my heritage (thanks Dad) and the diet we loosely followed while growing up. I can attest ... it's a delicious way to eat.
In the mid-20th century, researchers noted that people in Spain, Greece, and Italy lived longer and healthier than Americans. And they had lower levels of heart disease, North America’s number one killer. And the research keeps coming in. Eating a Mediterranean Diet is linked with:
Less obesity and overweight (it's better than low-fat diets)
Better blood sugar control (for diabetes)
Lower risk of heart disease and stroke (and blood markers like cholesterol and triglycerides)
Reduced risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases
Fewer cancers (breast & colorectal)
Less premature death
Recent research even links the Mediterranean diet to better gut health. Gut health is associated with mental health, autoimmune, allergies and chronic inflammation. Why the connection? Well, the Mediterranean diet is high in fruit, vegetables and fibre, key food groups for friendly gut microbes. It’s also low in processed foods and sugar … key foods for unfriendly gut microbes.
Many people who start eating a Mediterranean diet can stick with it long-term. In fact, many live it life-long. It is easy to follow and easy to stick to. It also doesn’t restrict foods. Nope. It embraces them.
How is this even possible? Read on …
What to eat and drink on a Mediterranean Diet
Whole foods comprise the bulk of the Mediterranean Diet. Foods like:
Fruits and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Fish and seafood
Extra virgin olive oil
Herbs and spices
These foods are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, and fibre. It’s important to underline that whole grains refers to grains in their WHOLE form, not refined. Think kasha, quinoa and brown rice, not multi-grain Wonderbread.
The go-to beverage for the Mediterranean Diet is water. Coffee and tea are also regularly consumed (without the addition of lots of cream and/or sugar). And yes, you can enjoy red wine (about 1 glass per day)! Yay!
Foods and drinks that are eaten in moderation include:
Cheese and yogurt
Red meat, unfermented dairy (e.g., milk), butter, and salt
What to ditch on a Mediterranean Diet
There are many foods and drinks that are not part of the Mediterranean diet. Not surprisingly, this includes many highly processed and unhealthy foods like:
Sauces and gravies
Sugar-sweetened beverages or fruit juices
Refined grains and oils (including hydrogenated oils)
Too much salt
The Mediterranean diet also incorporates a different lifestyle. Meals are eaten with others. You connect, discuss and eat slowly. Even lunch time is celebrated and “eating at your desk” at work is not a customary habit. You eat with co-workers.
Other countries are starting to get on board. In fact, Canada recently changed it’s food guidelines to include a section on the importance of mindful eating:
The importance of preparing food from scratch
Connecting with others
Slowly chewing food
When you are rushed or stressed, you do not digest well. Your gut is often referred to as your second brain (also known as the enteric nervous system, housing more neurotransmitters than your spinal column!). Slow down for the benefit of your body and nerves.
Pros and Cons of the Mediterranean Diet
This diet is particulary rich in Omega 3 and 9 (healthy fats) which helps balance the Omega 6 : Omega 3 ratio. I’ve written about this ratio before, but here is the shortened version.
To help manage inflammation, you should ideally maintain a 3:1 ratio of Omega 6 : Omega 3s in your diet. Omega 6 is found in plants and Omega 3 is primarily found in seafood. Due to the amount of processed foods that North Americans eat (fried foods, crackers, chips, cookies, snacks and treats that use plant oils) vs the amount of fish and seafood we eat (none in many households), the Omega 6 to 3 ratio has swung dramatically out of balance and many consume a ratio closer to 10:1. This puts your body into an inflammatory state. If you are intersted in reading more, here is an easy to understand article by Kris Gunner: Health Line.
An easy way to swing the balance is to simply incorporate more fish and seafood into your diet. In fact, the autoimmune protocol recommends 5 – 6 meals a week to help increase intake of Omega 3s and selenium.
Worried about mercurcy? Research shows that the amount of selenium found in fish naturally binds to mercury for it to be removed from the system, and the leftover selenium can support the overall immune system. If you’re still worried, purchase smaller fish … they will contain less mercury overall.
If you dislike making or eating fish, a fish oil supplement maybe an option for you. There are lots of great flavoured liquids out there. My kids like the lemon flavoured NutraSea and Carlson’s Cod Liver Oil. There is no back-lash burping.
I also think that there is a very good argument to include grass-fed beef in the Mediterranean Diet. Historically, not a lot of beef was included – people lived seaside on rocky terrains with limited pastures to raise cattle - dairy was the priority. If you’re following this diet for general health, you might as well include what is best. Grain fed beef has higher amounts of saturated fat (typically known as “the bad fat”) whereas research shows that grass-fed beef has a better Omega 6:3 ratio, and it is higher in Vitamins A and E, important antioxidants.
The disadvantages of the Mediterrean diet centre around autoimmunity and poor gut health. It is high in many known triggers that can contribute to leaky gut or intestinal permeablity – legumes, nuts/seeds, grains and nightshades. These foods contain compounds known as lectins (prolamins and agglutins), saponins, phytic acid and digestive enzyme inhibitors. For some – especially those with a hyper immune system – these compounds cause additional inflammation as they are able to cross the intestinal border and stimulate the immune system.
If you have or suspect an autoimmune condition, the Autoimmune Protocol or even Paleo is a much better diet for your overall health. But keep in mind, some of the foods in the Mediterranean Diet can be added back in after you have reset your gut health, so you will end up with a hybrid of the three diets that are best suited to your unique biochemistry.
The Mediterranean Diet is also one of the key diets recommended for blood sugar control, cholesterol and blood pressure. Yet, when pitted against a Paleo, Paleo outperforms. In fact, studies show people have a more significant drop in blood glucose while following a Paleo approach for only 12 weeks, while lipid profiles improve and blood pressure decreases.
The Mediterranean Diet is a very healthy way of eating. It is a whole food diet based mainly on plant and seafood (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fish, olive oil, and herbs and spices).
The Mediterranean Diet is high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, and fibre; all of which are health-boosting from your head to your heart… and the rest of your body.
Don't forget that health involves more than just food. The Mediterranean lifestyle also incorporates regular exercise, eating with people whom you care about, and overall enjoyment of life.
If you have an autoimmune disease, you must work on improving gut health first and foremost. The Mediterranean Diet includes quite a few food triggers for gut inflammation and may not be the best fix for your overall health. And, keep in mind, that once gut health is restored, many of the foods listed on the Mediterranean Diet can be added back in (nuts and seeds in particular). The Autoimmune Protocol or the Paleo Diet are a much better approach.
Do you think you could add or ditch certain foods to get closer to the Mediterranean Diet? Do you have a favourite recipe that embodies this way of eating? I'd love to know! Add it to the comments below.