Health & Nutrition
February 17, 2021
• Updated on
23 Jul

Why Mediterranean Diet Still Tops the List of Top Diets for 2021?

The pandemic brought a tectonic shift in our perspective towards diet and its significance vis-à-vis immunity, mental health and our overall wellbeing. From the peripheries of weight loss, size zero, and other fads, diet reclaimed the epicentre of health and wellness. People rediscovered the joys and benefits of healthy eating during the lockdown.

The perennial question, however, remained the same — Which is the best diet to manage health? Trends come and go but one diet that has stood the test of time is The Mediterranean Diet. What makes the Mediterranean diet the best diet for weight loss, cardiac health and long life?

It offers a beautiful and healthy combination of superfoods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, whole grains, and virgin oil, which help reduce inflammation in the body, improve blood flow and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. Mediterranean diet scores high on sustainability and satiety.

In the early ’90s, renowned nutritionists and researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health presented the Mediterranean diet in the current widely expected form. Today, it is more popular than ever and is ranked # 1 Best Heart-Healthy Diet, Best Diet for Healthy Eating, Best Plant-based diet, and the easiest diet to follow according to the U.S. News & World Report. A research study done by the University of Minnesota Medical School suggests that Mediterranean diet may hold the key to improving lifespan and mitigating aging-related diseases.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet plan has a menu based on the traditional cuisines of countries along the Mediterranean Sea, including recipes from Spain, Turkey, Morocco and other countries and not just Greek and Italian cuisine. The Mediterranean diet pyramid has:

  • Twice weekly servings of fish and seafood.
  • Core foods to enjoy every day: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats such as olive oil.
  • Moderate portions of dairy foods, eggs, and occasional poultry.
  • Infrequent servings of red meats and sweets.
  • Heart-friendly ingredients including olive oil, feta and halloumi which are lower in fat than cheddar cheese.

Mediterranean diet is considered a heart-friendly diet.

What makes Mediterranean Diet so good for all?

Plant-based, not meat-based

You can have fish and other seafood twice a week, and contrary to general perception, red meats in the Mediterranean diet are minimal. That means, most of your calories for the significant part of your day would come from vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grains with herbs and spices for flavours.

Healthy fats

The Mediterranean diet uses fats from nut and seed oils and avocado instead of margarine and butter and other saturated fats, which aids in heart disease.

The significant oils allowed in the Mediterranean diet are unsaturated oils like olive oil, fish oils, flaxseed oil, and other nuts oils like hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds.

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil and fatty fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout are another form of healthy fat, decreasing triglycerides and decreasing the risk of stroke and heart failure by reducing blood clotting.

The 35–40% of your daily fat need would come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and fewer amounts from saturated and trans-fat when following this diet.

Beverages allowed

The Mediterranean diet plan is a very forgiving diet and keeps in mind your occasional need to have a glass of wine with your friends and family, which is also a part of Mediterranean culture. Many studies also suggest up to a glass of red wine, and two drinks for women and men respectively for heart health. However, it’s always good to consult your doctor to know about any specific concerns for you. Also, it’s advisable to be avoided by anyone with alcoholism or problems controlling their consumption.

It also suggests switching to 1% or fat-free milk from 2% or whole milk. Coffee and tea are acceptable; however, sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices, which are very high in sugar, should be avoided entirely.

The fibre rich Mediterranean diet promotes gut health and weight loss.

Mediterranean Diet is a nutrient-dense diet

The Mediterranean diet being predominantly plant-based, it naturally includes many essential nutrients and food groups, such as:

Fibre: With recipes rich in quinoa, chickpeas, sesame, legumes and whole grains, and different types of whole grain pita bread which is also permissible, the Mediterranean diet is fibre friendly, unlike the keto diet. Fibres help to lower blood sugar levels, promote digestion and gut health and even promote weight loss.

Vitamins and minerals: Mediterranean cuisine focuses on fresh and seasonal ingredients of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, spinach and cucumbers with Greek ingredients like feta cheese and black olives all of which provide minerals and vitamins needed for a healthy body. Additionally, lean meats and seafood provide vitamin B-12, which is scarce in an entirely plant-based diet.

Antioxidants: The extra virgin olive oil, which is used extensively in the Mediterranean diet plan, is rich in polyphenols, which help in healthy blood vessels and blood circulation. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and other vitamins and minerals are available in this balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits. These antioxidants can help remove free radicals from the body, which otherwise can cause damage that can lead to cancer.

Low sugar: Like every other diet, the Mediterranean diet also has low sugars in it though the plus is that it allows the consumption of fresh fruits which will help alleviate sugar cravings. There are many Mediterranean diet-friendly dessert recipes that are available online, which substitute all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour and butter with olive oil and sweetness from natural sugars of fresh fruits alone.

Mediterranean diet is flexible, fibre-rich & does not promote starvation.

Why the Mediterranean Diet is the best diet for 2021?

The Mediterranean diet offers a balanced diet, which is a doable lifestyle choice without major restrictions and is also recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to promote wellness and prevent chronic diseases.

The World Health Organization and the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization also recognise it as a healthy, balanced and sustainable dietary pattern and an intangible cultural asset. Here are some benefits of the Mediterranean Diet:

∙ Covers all five major food groups

∙ Does not involve any calorie counting and basically, swaps out bad fats for good heart-healthy fats.

∙ Flexible, easy to make and follow and is less limiting.

∙ The menu options to choose from is enormous- Spanish, Greek, Moroccan, Italian, Turkish, plenty of cuisines to choose from and this breaks the monotony.

∙ Most diets have bland and plain food while the Mediterranean diet has lots of flavour with herbs and spices like cilantro, rosemary, garlic, pepper and cinnamon.

∙ Takes care of sugar cravings and controls a sudden spike in glucose by allowing minimal amounts of bread and fruits.

Mediterranean Diet covers all food groups, ensuring holistic nutrition.

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The nutrient-rich Mediterranean diet has large quantities of fresh and seasonal produce used with nuts and other unsaturated fats along with physical activity — can reduce your risk of severe mental and physical health problems by:

Increasing longevity: A clinical trial was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2013, where 7000 men and women in Spain who had Type-2 diabetes or had a risk of cardiovascular disease were put to the test. Those who ate the Mediterranean diet with nuts and olive oil had a 3% lower chance of heart issues, by the diet alone.

Protects against type 2 diabetes: The Mediterranean diet is fibre-rich and less calorie-counted; it benefits the long run, significantly to curb complications. It does blood sugar control more than other low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets.

Increases weight loss: According to an analysis published in August 2016 by the Spanish PREDIMED trial data, over a period of five years, following the Mediterranean diet which is high in unsaturated fat and fresh produce led to considerably more weight loss and added less to the participant’s waist circumferences than other low-fat diets.

∙ Protects against cancer: As the Mediterranean diet is driven by the intake of vegetables, whole grains and fruits, studies suggest that it may help reduce the risk of cancers like colorectal cancer and breast cancer.

∙ Benefits patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease due to which the patient gets acute swelling and pain at the joints. The Mediterranean diet’s specific properties, including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, help reduce inflammation levels, which could help prevent Rheumatoid Arthritis and other illnesses.

Mediterranean diet is not a weight-loss plan. It's a form of healthy lifestyle.

Are there any downsides to the Mediterranean Diet?

∙ Moderate amounts of alcohol in the form of wine is permitted in this diet. While some studies state that light to average alcohol intake could benefit health, it might not suit all body types.

. Though it mentions the term ‘diet’, it’s a lifestyle to follow, and the results are slow for weight-loss. For people who need quick results, this diet would not be suitable.

∙ The Mediterranean diet cuts out many over-the-counter processed and refined foods and predominantly focuses on homemade foods. Some people, especially working people with limited time at hand, might find it challenging.

∙ Additionally, such as seafood, olive oil, fruits, and nuts may be costlier than other protein sources and other refined oils and margarine, which can make it difficult for those on a tight budget.

Nuts & seeds are an essential part of Mediterranean Diet.

What is the Mediterranean diet food list?

Here is a brief compilation of the types of food that can be included under the Mediterranean diet:

Vegetables and fruits: All kinds of fresh and green vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches and the like which are seasonally and regionally available.

Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are an essential part of most Mediterranean cuisine, though they can be eaten raw too. Examples are almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, flax and chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and more.

Legumes: Legumes and lentils are used in more ways than one- like hummus, lima bean spread, salads and the like. All kinds of pulses and legumes like beans, peas, lentils, pulses, chickpeas, and the like.

Tubers: Though tubers are generally high in starch, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t eliminate it. However, its good to use sparingly. Types include potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke, yam, sweet potatoes and turnips.

Whole grains: Quinoa, couscous, bulghur, rolled oats, farro, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, polenta and wholegrain pasta or bread.

Fish and seafood: All kinds of fatty fishes are right like salmon, tuna, barracuda, kingfish, sardines, trout, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, lobster, oysters and more.

Poultry: Chicken, duck, turkey.

Eggs: Chicken, quail and duck eggs.

Dairy: Cheese, yoghurt, Greek yoghurt, and 1% or fat-free milk.

Herbs and spices: Most of the flavours come from herbs and spices, both fresh and dry like sage, oregano, paprika, basil, nutmeg, mint, rosemary, cinnamon, pepper, and more.

Healthy Fats: Fat-source is majorly from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids like fish oil, avocados and avocado oil, virgin and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and the like.

People following Mediterranean Diet should avoid refined flour.

What foods to avoid on the Mediterranean diet?

∙ Sugar loaded processed food like soda, candies, ice cream, and any form of added sugar as honey, maple syrup, table sugar and many others.

∙ People following the Mediterranean diet should avoid refined grains and white flour and food made with white bread, pasta and pizza dough made with white flour and others.

∙ We should avoid trans fats from every kind of diet and the Mediterranean diet is no different.

∙ One should eliminate any refined oils like Soybean oil, cottonseed oil and canola oil.

∙ Deli meats and any high sodium processed meats like sausages, nuggets and the like.

∙ Packaged ready-to-eat foods, in general, are unhealthy. Anything made in a factory will be loaded with natural and artificial preservatives and additives and should be avoided.

Mediterranean Diet is primarily a plant-based diet.

How the Mediterranean Diet goes with the Indian palate and meets our seasonal & nutritional requirements?

Health-conscious people can easily incorporate the Mediterranean diet principles into the Indian kitchen without taxing the wallet or compromising taste. It is easy to follow and gives us the flexibility of cooking with locally available ingredients.

The Mediterranean diet stresses eating lots of plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, bread and cereals or whole grains, and beans. Here’s how you can incorporate the Mediterranean Diet in Indian cooking:

  • Combine more and more colour in your meals. Include a minimum of 5–10 servings of fresh and crunchy fruits and vegetables.
  • This means you need to include various fruits or vegetables during each meal, which is very common in Indian cuisine.
  • You can either eat it raw, grilled, steamed, sautéed, roasted or pickled. We also use unsaturated oils like mustard oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, groundnut oil and even olive oil though not regional, which have found a place in Indian households.
  • Consume a variety of fruits, from seasonal to locally grown. Eat fruits to curb the sugar cravings, which are typically observed at noon or post-dinner. Go for seasonal foods — in winter pick oranges, carrots, peas; while in summers opt for watermelons and mangoes.
  • Consume lots of bhaaji/subzi.
  • Do not overcook — try having as much of the food raw as you can, like salads, fruit and nuts. Go easy on the salt.
  • Snack on whole fruit and fresh vegetables as salads.

Whole grains can be used for making upma & idli in Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet with Indian Recipes

When it comes to Mediterranean Diet recipes, there is so much one can try. Most Indian households have the everyday breakfast of parathas in Northern India or upma and dosa varieties in South India.

Parathas are whole-wheat flour stuffed rotis with a variety of seasonal vegetables and even cottage cheese. As a variation, add green leafy vegetables in the dough or make stuffed mix vegetable parathas — you can try roasting the paratha without oil or use very little olive oil on a non-stick Tawa.

For some delicious Mediterranean recipes, you can also try wholegrain upma, poha, Dalia, oats with capsicum, onion, tomatoes and boiled peas. Even idli can be sautéd with vegetables, and you can add assorted vegetables to dosa filling and topping on uttapam.

∙ As per Indian cooking, our whole grains can be whole wheat flour, jowar, bajra or ragi, whole grain bread, oats, porridge, or milk cereals. Whole grains are packed with fibre, antioxidants, and energy. They also help to control blood sugar.

∙ A traditional Mediterranean diet also emphasises on an additional daily serving of mixed nuts. You can eat a handful of raw or roasted nuts as a snack. It’s a common practice to give kids blanched almonds every morning. Nuts and seeds contain healthy fats and Vitamin B and E. Keep almonds, cashews, walnuts as a substitute for oily evening snacks like a samosa.

∙ For Mediterranean dessert, try to avoid processed store-bought nuts or those which are honey or sugar-coated nuts, chikkis, mithai like badam or Kaju rolls as they are loaded with extra sugar calories.

∙ Sesame seeds common in Mediterranean cuisine, used as tahini paste, are a good source of fibres as a dip or spread of bread.

∙ Legumes, which almost all Indian kitchens pile on, are also an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. They are an excellent source of low-fat vegetarian protein and a good substitute for meat.

∙ We could meet our requirement of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids by consuming fish in a moderate amount. Seafood and fish are recommended to be consumed often or at least twice a week. Try to boil, bake or grill them.

∙ Skinless poultry, eggs, low-fat cheese and low-fat curd could be consumed in a small portion every day and red meat to once or twice a month.

∙ Try olive oil, preferably virgin or extra virgin olive oil, as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine to lightly drizzle over vegetables or cook them in little oil. We can use peanut oil or Mustard oil in limited quantities for Indian cooking. Use not more than 3–4 teaspoons of oil in a day.

∙ Choose A2 Cow milk or low-fat dairy products, avoid cheese or switch to less fatty ones like feta or even low fat paneer.

∙ Include a protein source in every meal. Consume at least 4–6 servings of protein-rich foods in a day.

∙ Include plenty of water: Daily consumption of 2 to 2 and half a litre of water detoxify the body. It keeps the body hydrated, aids digestion and improves blood circulation.

∙ Physical activity: Physical activity of moderate intensity is a must for good results. For a healthy lifestyle, 80% comes from what we eat and 20% from exercise. Half to one hour walk, jog, cycling or swimming will do wonders.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a healthy source of good fats.

How do I start a Mediterranean diet?

Interested in trying the Mediterranean diet? These tips will help you get started:

∙ Aim for including vegetables and fruits in your diet for at least 7 to 10 servings per day. When having salads, mix raw vegetables in olive oil, vinaigrette dressing or hummus instead of dips made from sour cream or mayonnaise.

∙ Always eat breakfast. Smother in a mix of olive oil and fresh herbs in your bread instead of butter for breakfast.

∙ Switch to wholegrain bread, cereal and pasta instead of the all-purpose flour or white flour. Try other varieties of whole grains too, such as quinoa, farro and bulgur.

∙ Use good fats like virgin or Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), nuts and seed oils and as-is, olives, and avocados instead of saturated fats like butter. Substitute bacon in your sandwiches with avocados.

∙ Eat fish, especially those with fatty acids like Omega-3, twice a week. Tuna, salmon, sardine, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Choose more restorative cooking techniques like grilling, steaming or stews and curries, over deep-frying.

∙ Minimise red meat in the diet. If you love to eat meat, make sure it’s lean meat, and portion sizes are small. As a variation, try pasta tossed with olive oil and chopped pine nuts and grated parmesan cheese as a garnish instead of having pasta with meat sauce.

∙ Choose low-fat yoghurt and small amounts of a variety of low-fat cheeses. Sprinkle your salads with chopped nuts or seeds instead of cheese. You can also mix powdered flaxseeds to your cereals and soups.

∙ Spice it up. Use spices and dried and fresh herbs to boost flavour and lessen the need for salt.

The Mediterranean diet involves choosing a healthy lifestyle and losing weight on eating balanced, nutrient-rich and homemade foods while having the room to not give up your generic cravings for bread, wine and meat. People who opt for this eating style say they’ll never eat any other way or go back to fad diets.

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Lovneet Batra
Lovneet Batra is a clinical nutritionist with over a decade of experience treating patients and educating people on the benefits of a healthy diet. One of Delhi’s most sought-after nutritionists...
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