It's no secret that what you eat plays a key role in your health, and the quality of your diet can make the difference between feeling drained, fatigued and facing a high risk of disease vs. feeling energetic, happy and on track for a long, healthy life. The Mediterranean diet, which puts an emphasis on healthy fats and unprocessed foods, offers several nutritional and health benefits and provides a flexible and easy-to-follow way to stay healthy. It incorporates healthy foods from every food group, so you can easily stick to the diet while eating nutritious fare you love.
Mediterranean Diet and Health
Following the Mediterranean diet helps your waistline and your overall health. It lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and protects you from type-2 diabetes, and foods you'll eat on the diet -- like fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- also help you maintain a healthy weight. The Mediterranean diet also keeps your mind sharp as you age. Many people experience a decline in cognitive function -- which includes learning, memory and problem-solving -- as they age. But people who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to experience a slower rate of cognitive decline, explains Harvard Medical School. The bottom line: Following the Mediterranean diet helps keep your body and mind healthy as you age so that you can maintain the healthy, active lifestyle you enjoy.
Nutritious Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies form the basis of the Mediterranean diet, and you'll eat seven to 10 servings per day. These foods are relatively low in calories, so they can work well in calorie-controlled diet and offer essential nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A and magnesium needed for overall health. Eating more fruits and veggies not only reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, but it may help keep your bones strong as you age, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
Go for a rainbow of produce to meet your daily needs. Pick up dark green veggies like kale, broccoli, romaine lettuce, spinach and brussels sprouts, plus orange and red produce like mangoes, oranges, red peppers, carrots, strawberries and watermelon. Add more variety with white produce, like mushrooms, plus purple and blue fare like grapes, blueberries, blackberries, plums and eggplant.
Whole Grains for Health
Whole grains also make up an important part of the Mediterranean diet. Unlike refined grains, like white flour, which have the nutritionally dense germ and bran removed, whole grains are just that -- the entire grain. A diet rich in whole grains lowers your risk of type-2 diabetes and protects against heart disease. Whole grains also help you get more fiber, a nutrient that fights constipation and helps you feel satisfied after your meals.
Look for 100-percent whole-wheat or 100-percent whole-grain bread, pasta and couscous as sources of whole grains, or get brown rice, wheat berries, rolled oats, steel-cut oats or quinoa. Get more creative by experimenting with other whole grains like amaranth or freekeh. Avoid white bread, pasta and other foods made using refined flours -- that includes "wheat" bread made with a mix of whole-wheat and refined flour.
Nutrient-Dense Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes also make up an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, and they should be a daily part of your meal plan. Like fruit, veggies and whole grains, beans and legumes are a great source of fiber. They're also high in protein, which your body can use to maintain strong muscles, support your immune system and promote new cell growth. Legumes and beans tend to be low on the glycemic index, which means they have a subtle and sustained effect on your blood sugar. Eating low-glycemic-index foods helps prevent rapid changes in your blood sugar levels, which would otherwise trigger hunger pangs.
When you follow the Mediterranean diet, shop for a variety of beans, including black beans, kidney beans and soybeans, as well as red, green or black lentils. Peanuts and peas also help boost your daily legume intake.
Go Nuts for Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds might be high in calories, but they're worth the caloric investment. They're high in dietary fiber and protein, along with healthy fats. Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are especially nutritious, thanks to their omega-3 fatty acid content. Your body can't make omega-3s, so they need to make up part of your diet, and they're essential for healthy brain function as well as cardiovascular health.
Eat a handful of nuts -- about a quarter-cup, or an ounce -- as a healthy snack, or add flaxseeds or chia to oatmeal or smoothies. Shop for raw or dry-roasted almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, as well as chia, flaxseeds or watermelon seeds. Avoid oil-roasted varieties, as they contain added fat, and avoid nuts with sugar or salt added -- such as honey-roasted or salted nuts.
Healthy Fats, Fish and Meat
Healthy fats, like olive oil, are an important part of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is key for good health -- it helps lower your levels of "bad" cholesterol to promote good cardiovascular health. In addition to olive oil -- plus the healthy fats found in nuts and seeds -- you should make fatty fish and poultry part of your meal plan twice per week.
Shop for salmon, tuna, sardines and rainbow trout -- these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as high-quality protein. When you eat meat, choose lean options like poultry, which tends to contain less unhealthy saturated fat than red meat. Shop for skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breasts, and cook them using healthy methods, like broiling, roasting, baking, grilling, poaching or steaming.
Enjoy Red Wine in Moderation
Following the Mediterranean diet doesn't mean you can't imbibe every now and then -- the diet recommends drinking red wine in moderation as part of your balanced diet. Red wine is high in beneficial antioxidants, and it provides resveratrol, a phytonutrient that boosts cardiovascular health, promotes the health of your brain and might even prevent cancer. And moderate alcohol consumption also offers some health benefits -- it lowers your chance of mortality from heart disease or stroke by up to 40 percent, explains the Harvard School of Public Health.
While the resveratrol content of wine varies depending on the grapes used, pinot noir and merlot red wines are generally the best sources, notes the Linus Pauling Institute, with shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and zweigelt slightly lower in resveratrol.
Make sure you practice moderation when drinking red wine. Men should cap their total alcohol intake to one to two drinks each day, at the most, while women should enjoy a maximum of one drink daily. A 5-ounce glass of red wine counts as one drink.
Strike These From Your List
The Mediterranean diet calls for you to limit processed foods and foods high in saturated fat. That means cutting red meat out of your regular meal plan and enjoying it a few times a month, at most. You'll also need to limit fast foods and processed meats, since these are high in unhealthy saturated fat, loaded with calories and laden with salt. In addition, avoid sweets, which are packed with sugar and sometimes contain refined grains. Avoid foods that contain trans fats, including margarine.
Avoid fatty dairy products, like full-fat milk or yogurt and butter. Instead, shop for nonfat milk and low-fat cheese. Pick up plain nonfat yogurt, as flavored yogurts often contain added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
A Day on the Mediterranean Diet
Filling your diet with whole, unprocessed foods will help you stay satisfied on the Mediterranean diet.
For breakfast, try making a smoothie from nonfat milk, a cup of baby kale, a frozen banana and a spoonful or two of cooked oatmeal; or cook quinoa in nonfat milk and top it with berries and chopped walnuts for a healthy and flavorful porridge.
Snack on a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit or a small salad made from chopped tomato, cucumber and a drizzle of high-quality olive oil.
At lunchtime, top a spinach and baby chard salad with a few sliced strawberries, chopped red peppers, a cup of chickpeas and a homemade vinaigrette made of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh chopped parsley. Or serve a burrito bowl made with brown rice, black beans, chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions and just a sprinkle of low-fat cheddar cheese.
Finish your day with a piece of grilled salmon served alongside grilled vegetables and roasted sweet potato, or make diet-friendly chili using red and green peppers, lean ground turkey breast and red kidney beans. Enjoy a slice of 100-percent whole-grain toast on the side, or serve your chili on a bed of brown rice.