Dietician’s Digest: The Mediterranean diet — what is it really all about?

Published 11:47 am Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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Dietician’s Digest by Emily Schmidt


You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet before, and perhaps associate it with eating healthy for your heart. Based on significant research, this is very true. However, this pattern of eating goes beyond lowering death risk from cardiovascular disease and stroke. It may also lower cancer risk, reduce your chance of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, help with depression and potentially provide benefits for inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

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This eating style is named after the Mediterranean region due to research finding that the diets of many living in this area — such as Greece and Italy — are associated with reduced disease risk and improved health. Some common denominators of what these cultures eat include an abundance of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans, nuts and seeds, and a focus on lean proteins — fish and shellfish, white meat — as well as healthy fats, such as olive oil. In fact, the Mediterranean diet is considered a high fat diet, with up to about 40% of calories coming from fat. The big difference between this and other trendy high fat diets, such as the keto diet, is the much larger focus on unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats come from foods such as olive oil, fatty fish and seafood, nuts and seeds (including nut and seed butters or oils), and avocado. The Mediterranean eating pattern also recommends limiting red and processed meats, high-fat dairy products, and refined sugars, especially from sweetened beverages and desserts. Some specific guidelines include:

Emily Schmidt

Vegetables: 2 or more servings daily (1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked) — include some raw veggies; avoid boiling and steam, roast, bake, etc. instead; focus on fresh or frozen

Fruit: 2-3 servings daily (1 whole fresh fruit or 1 cup) — avoid juices, focus on fresh or frozen

Fish and shellfish: At least 3 servings/week (3-5 ounce fish or 6-7 ounce shellfish = 1 serving), such as salmon, walleye, tuna, trout, shrimp, crab, lobster and more

Lean white meats: chicken and turkey without skin, 3 ounce = 1 serving (size of deck of cards)

Legumes and beans: 3 or more servings per week (1 serving = ½ cup), such as lentils, black beans, kidney beans, peas, etc.

Grains: Choose 100% whole grains; good source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — many in Mediterranean region dip bread in olive oil.

Nuts and seeds: At least 1 serving per week (1/4 cup) — serving size is important as they’re high calorie/fat. Have a handful of raw, unsalted nuts or seeds for a snack or sprinkle on a salad or oatmeal.

Healthy fats: Olive oil, fatty fish and seafood, nuts and seeds (including nut and seed butters or oils), and avocado

Dairy: Choose lower fat varieties; limit fatty cheeses to once per week.

Hydration: Drink mostly water, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. Optionally, red wine may be included — no more than 5 ounces/day for men, 3 ounces/day for women for health benefits.

Cooking tips: Cook with a multitude of herbs and spices, garlic-and-onion-infused tomato sauce and extra-virgin olive oil for low-heat cooking methods and salad dressings. Limit use of salt.

Other considerations: Stay physically active — at least 150 minutes moderate exercise per week — and focus on mindful eating. Take time for your meals and snacks, pay attention to eating and avoid distractions, and enjoy eating with family and friends.

Don’t view the Mediterranean eating style as a strict “all or none” diet. Rather, see it as more of a lifestyle and pattern of eating and healthy behaviors, where taste and flavor are still very much valued and emphasized. Visit the American Heart Association’s website or Mayo Clinic’s website for recipes and more information.


Albert Lea resident Emily Schmidt is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. She enjoys writing, cooking and spending time with her son and family.