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A Guide To The Mediterranean Diet

When you hear the word “diet,” what do you think of?

Most of us think of a plan we adopt temporarily to lose weight, but originally the word had simpler meaning: nourishment.

“What you put into your body affects how well it works,” says Sharon Moore, nutrition and wellness manager at Church Health in Memphis. “Over your life, your diet is the most modifiable factor you have in your own health and wellness.”

That’s a guiding principle at Church Health, a nonprofit that offers health care services to people with little or no access to health care. They focus on their patients’ most common health challenges, which are the same challenges many Tennesseans face:

Heart disease claims the lives of 15,000 Tennesseans each year

Church Health researched nutrition plans that could help with all of those issues. They chose the Mediterranean Diet based on guidance from The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University.

Studies show that people in the Mediterranean tend to be happier and more active, they don’t suffer from the same rates of disease, and they live longer,” says Moore. “That’s why we see this less as a ‘diet’ and more as a way of eating you can adopt for life.”

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The diet revolves around nutrition principles that are characteristic of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It prioritizes:

  • Eating more:
    • Fruits and vegetables
    • Nuts
    • Legumes (beans, peas)
    • Whole grains
    • Fish
  • Eating less:
    • Red meat
    • High-fat dairy
    • Butter (which is replaced with healthy fats)
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods

The diet’s healthy principles make it ideal for treating and preventing health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer and inflammation. In fact, most scientific organizations encourage adults to add elements of the Mediterranean Diet to their nutrition plan to help prevent chronic diseases.

What is the Mediterranean Diet not?

  • Strict (There are no foods you can’t eat.)
  • Intended to be temporary
  • About eating food with Mediterranean flavors
  • About weight loss but about health

“One misconception about the Mediterranean Diet is that you’ll lose a lot of weight, but we know that you can be overweight and be healthy, which is hard for people to wrap their heads around,” says Moore. “The benefit of eating this way is that it will make you healthier. Once you have more energy or confidence, you might think, ‘I’ll step out there and do a walk.’ That can lead to weight loss. But the diet as a whole is about small changes. For most of us, it’s not about running 5 miles — it’s about walking for 30 minutes.”

The 9 food principles of the Mediterranean Diet

While the diet includes healthy habits such as portion control, regular exercise, and eating with family and friends, there are 9 key nutritional principles. Below are suggestions of what to eat including foods that grow locally here in Tennessee.

DAILY

1. Vegetables: 2-3 cups

Dark leafy greens, carrots, squash, peppers, eggplant

In Tennessee, try:

  • Arugula and spinach
  • Beets
  • Cucumbers
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini and squash
  • Turnip, collard, and mustard greens
  • Kale and Swiss chard
  • Pumpkin
  • Bell, hot and pimento peppers

2. Fruits: 1-1½ cups

Apples, berries, citrus

In Tennessee, try:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Pears
  • Blackberries, raspberries and strawberries
  • Figs
  • Cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon
  • Cherries
  • Grapes

3. Nuts: ¼ cup

Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios

In Tennessee, try:

  • Pecans
  • Chinese chestnuts
  • Hazelnuts
  • Black walnut

Tip: Look out for candied or highly salted nuts

4. Whole grains: 1-1½ cups

Cereal, brown rice, popcorn, quinoa, whole wheat, oats

In Tennessee, try:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Whole wheat bread

5. Fat: Use unsaturated oils instead of butter

Olive, canola, sesame, sunflower, safflower, avocado

6. Dairy: 1 cup (8 oz.) or less

Yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta, sour cream

In Tennessee, try local cheese and low-fat milk.

7. Meats: 3-4 ounces or less

Lean pork, chicken or beef

In Tennessee, try:

  • Skinless chicken breast, leg or thigh
  • Pork tenderloin, loin, chop or roast
  • Beef sirloin, round, tenderloin or loin

WEEKLY

8. Legumes: 2 cups

Lentils, peas, beans, chickpeas

In Tennessee, try:

  • Okra
  • Lima
  • Pole, green, soy, snap and wax beans
  • English, sugar, field, snow and lady peas

9. Fish: 2 4-oz. servings (about the size of your palm)

Cod, drum, tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, mackerel

In Tennessee, try:

  • Bass
  • Catfish
  • Trout
  • Walleye

In moderation, alcohol has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease but it is not required. If you do drink alcohol, limit it to 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks for men.

How long does it take to notice a difference on the Mediterranean Diet?

It depends how many principles you adopt. At Church Health, they recommend people incorporate elements one by one so it’s not overwhelming, and so they can maintain the changes they make.

“We have our patients score themselves to see what things they’re already doing well and then pick one thing to focus on for 6 weeks,” says Moore. “So you might start by using olive oil instead of butter. Once you’ve mastered that, you might increase your vegetable intake. About 6-8 weeks in, you should start seeing a difference.”

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can incorporate weight loss — but only in a sustainable way.

“People think it’s hard to lose weight, but what’s hard to do is to maintain weight loss,” says Moore. “That’s why we focus on creating healthy habits. After a while, you might find that white bread tastes gummy compared to wheat, or that whole milk tastes too rich. The key is doing smart, reasonable things over time so healthy habits become the way you live and not a diet.”

How do you measure progress on the Mediterranean Diet?

People with chronic health conditions will see the most dramatic changes at the doctor:

  • If you have diabetes, your A1C (blood sugar measurement) should decrease.
  • If you have cancer or arthritis, your inflammation should decrease.
  • If your cholesterol or blood pressure are high, they should come down.

Do you have to adopt all 9 principles for it to work?

No. Even if you only adopt a couple of these principles, you can reduce your risk for chronic health conditions. But some studies show that people who fully adhere to the diet can reduce their risk of dying from a chronic illness by up to 25%.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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