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The Mediterranean Diet: Is it a Fad or a Chance to Make Healthy Substitutions?

Updated on March 10, 2013

To start with, I would like to clarify that although this is becoming a significant trend, it is hardly a fad diet. The name “Mediterranean Diet” signifies the typical Greek, Italian, and Spanish origins of the diet, but is actually not an altogether accurate picture of Mediterranean cuisine. It merely draws on typical Mediterranean foodstuffs that may or may not be universal to the Mediterranean, such as olive oil. The Mediterranean diet puts an emphasis on lean meats (fish and poultry), unrefined cereals, and fruits and vegetables while playing down red meat, pork and dairy products (except for cheese and yogurt in moderation). Essentially, the main philosophy of the Mediterranean diet is to eat a wide variety of nutrient rich foods and avoid anything with high amounts of saturated or trans fats. This is hardly a temporary fad diet to “go on” in order to lose weight for a definite amount of time. It is rather a healthy lifestyle option that can do wonders for your long term health and well-being, especially when coupled with regular and varied exercise (that means both cardiovascular exercise and strength training).

The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that you can gradually work your way into it by making small substitutions based on its guidelines. Remember, small changes made over time is the best way to ensure success. If you try to change too much too fast, you run the risk of a serious backlash. Here are some examples of small, but healthy, changes and substitutions the Mediterranean diet lends itself well to:

1. Grease the Pan with Olive Oil instead of Butter

Butter is extremely high in saturated fat, to say nothing of its massive calorie content. Olive oil, on the other hand, is very high in monounsaturated fats and contains antioxidants that may even neutralize high cholesterol.

2. From Ice Cream to Yogurt

The Mediterranean diet allows for some dairy in moderation, mostly cheese and yogurt. Ice cream, again, is extremely high in saturated fat, not to mention pancreas straining processed sugar. Yogurt has always been recognized as a healthier alternative to ice cream, but be careful. Yogurt can be just as high in processed sugar as ice cream. Aim for unflavored, low fat yogurt. You can sweeten it with honey, which has enzymes that processed cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup lack. These enzymes play a role in the metabolism of sugar. Processed sugars, for their lack of these enzymes, force your pancreas to work to produce the necessary enzymes to break these sugars down. Long-term strain on your pancreas in this way plays a role in the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Berries and diced fruit would also go great with yogurt.

3. Toss the Steaks and Hams in favor of Fish and Poultry

Not only should you do away with red meat and pork, which can both be very high in saturated fat, but you should also reduce your meat intake altogether. The Mediterranean diet recommends you eat moderate amounts of fish and poultry. Fish is especially important for its essential fatty acids.

4. Go from Sugary or Highly Processed Cereal to Less Refined and Nutrient Fortified Varieties

This one takes little explanation. Rather than going for breakfast cereal high in sugar, choose fortified bran cereals. This is an excellent source of fiber, B Vitamins, and a host of other essential nutrients with which to start your day. I recommend reduced fat milk. Rather than granulated cane sugar, try sweetening your cereal with honey for the same reason I mention above with yogurt.

5. Snack on Nuts and Fruit rather than Chips and Candy

Nuts get a lot of criticism for being very high in calories. This is true because of their high oil content. However, there is a major difference between the unsaturated fats and Omega 3 fatty acids in nuts and the saturated and trans fats found in junk food such as chips. Furthermore, people who regularly snack on nuts are less likely to eat junk food. Scientists estimate that people who regularly snack on nuts live an extra 3 to 4 years longer than those who don’t.

Fruit is an excellent snack, especially when compared with candy. Like honey, the unprocessed sugar in fruit comes with enzymes that help the body metabolize it. On the other hand, candy and chocolates are typically extremely high in cane sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup, which put an immense strain on the pancreas and promote unhealthy weight gain due to hunger stimulating insulin spikes. Fruit is also relatively high in fiber and leaves you feeling fuller than processed sweets do. Not to mention the plethora of vitamins and antioxidants.

Bonus Note: Some versions of the Mediterranean die stress extra-dark chocolate in moderation. This can also be an occasional substitute for the more sugary and fatty milk chocolate. The basic rule is that it has to be at least 50% cocoa, if not more. I personally prefer 70% cocoa dark chocolate.

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