The Mediterranean diet has long fascinated nutritionists and public health scientists.
The Mediterranean diet is rich, tasty, and features a range of world-renowned cuisine. It's also associated with lower all-cause mortality and benefits around everything from diabetes and Alzheimer's disease to weight loss.
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It's not just about longevity but also about living healthily for the longest duration possible. Whilst life expectancies are also high elsewhere, Mediterranean populations enjoy some of the lowest rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, metabolic diseases, and neurological and degenerative diseases.
These are not small studies; many are long-duration population cohort studies that have analysed entire towns, villages and regions for mortality and risk of disease.
Unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean diet (MD) has become the 'gold standard' diet for everything from weight loss to disease prevention and overall longevity.
How can you integrate the Mediterranean diet into your life, and what is the fastest way to lose weight on the Mediterranean diet?
Why switch to the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with longevity and good health. However, recent studies have confirmed how drastic the effects are.
Weight loss is integrated into the Mediterranean diet's health benefits. This diet doesn't just help you achieve a healthy weight; it will improve your general health.
This is the Mediterranean diet's greatest asset; it's a holistic approach to weight loss and general health.
- Studies reviewed by Harvard have linked the Mediterranean diet to a 25% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 30% lower risk of stroke or heart attack.
- A major review found the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of breast cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's.
- Population studies of 4,000,000 individuals found the Mediterranean diet could reduce mortality by some 8%.
- Studies have found declines in breast and other cancer rates associated with the Mediterranean diet.
- Weight loss studies found that the Mediterranean diet is as or more effective as other calorie-restricted diets and has the additional effect of reducing cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- Harvard also found that the Mediterranean diet beats other diets in terms of weight loss and health.
The main characteristics of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is a catch-all term for the dietary practices of several countries, particularly Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and the South of France. Each country is known for its unique culture, and healthy eating is part of the traditional diets of each nation.
The Mediterranean diet is primarily composed of the following foods and ingredients:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables, typically raw or lightly grilled
- Legumes, nuts, seeds and grains
- Cereals and grains; oats, wheat, corn and maise
- Healthy fats like olive oils
- Fish; salmon, sardines and other servings of oily fish
- Some poultry, eggs and dairy (mainly organic yoghurt)
- Plenty of water and wine in moderation
There are a few fundamental principles to abide by, too:
- The Mediterranean diet limits red meats, white sugar and processed foods.
- You can still eat sweet foods in moderation, particularly nuts, fruits, honey and yoghurt.
- You should pack every meal colourfully with vegetables ranging from dark leafy grains to brighter tomatoes and peppers.
- Red wine consumption is common, typically one to two smaller-than-average glasses with a meal.
- Portion sizes are smaller than average, especially for meals that include grains and oily fish.
- Many meals should be vegetarian.
- While it has many fatty foods, when you consider portion sizes, it is quite a low-fat diet. Take Greek food, for example. The Greek diet has lots of high-fat foods, but these are consumed in moderation, surrounded by vegetables.
You can see that the Mediterranean diet is pretty indulgent in fatty foods, particularly grains, nuts and starchy foods like pasta and bread. Even drinking red wine in moderation is actively encouraged!
But before you gorge yourself on nuts, cereals, bread and diary with a large glass of vino in your hand, you need to know how you should proportion the Mediterranean diet.
Proportion and moderation are everything, from the portion sizes to the choices of less classically healthy foods like pasta and bread.
It would be effortless to turn a Mediterranean-style diet into a less than healthy one by ignoring the principles above and choosing only the tastiest foods.
The best way to explain the Mediterranean diet is via the Mediterranean diet pyramid. This simplifies the diet and makes people aware of what they should eat and how often. It is similar to the traditional food groups pyramid but is used to explain the diet of Mediterranean countries rather than the ideal Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet pyramid
There are five levels to the Mediterranean diet pyramid.
The pyramid helps you organise your diet, keeping the right foods in the right proportions for weight loss and general health.
You can find plenty of recipe ideas online; BBC Good Food provides an excellent starting point.
The base of the pyramid - daily
The base of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle is not food but physical activity and exercise.
Exercise and activity form the base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid. People who live in the Mediterranean are active on a day-to-day basis. They enjoy a lot of low-level cardiovascular exercise and more intense workouts.
But not everyone in these countries follows this habit, and obesity is still a problem, even if their diet is excellent.
You can easily replicate the pyramid's base with an exercise plan of your own.
The second layer of the pyramid - daily
The second layer of the Mediterranean diet pyramid comprises foods you should concentrate on in your everyday diet. Dietitians love to include foods like this in nutrition plans.
Every meal should contain a good mixture of:
- Vegetables, all types in abundance (easy on the white potatoes)
- Whole grains and other carbohydrates
- Plant and extra virgin olive oils that are high in monounsaturated fat
- Organic fruits
- Herbs and spices (plenty of garlic in particular)
These foods provide a considerable amount of your recommended daily allowance of vitamins, minerals and macronutrients. Adding these to your diet will allow you to eat well and stay healthy.
You can add some bread and starchy foods like pasta, but choose whole grain options and keep portion sizes of carbs small in your diet plan. Fruits should be eaten daily but not in the same abundance as vegetables as they contain more sugar.
The third layer of the pyramid - 3 to 5 times a week
The third layer of the pyramid contains your fish and seafood. Some pyramids include seeds and nuts here. These should be consumed regularly but not in abundance as they are fatty and calorific.
Choose fresh, oily fish. Eat these in place of red meat or pork, 3 to 5 days a week.
The fourth layer of the pyramid - 2 to 3 times a week
The fourth layer typically contains poultry, eggs and dairy. Cheese and yoghurt are also usually included here; they can be eaten every other day in small portions or a couple of times a week in moderation portions.
Again, remember that portion control is crucial, particularly for weight loss.
Many of these foods are pretty fatty, and while they are good fats, they still need to be restricted to a reasonable level.
The top layer of the pyramid - 1 time a week
The top layer of the pyramid contains foods to consume with the greatest moderation. Sweets are included here, including honey, sweetened yoghurts and Mediterranean cakes.
Red wine is also usually included here to reflect how you should consume it in small amounts, if at all.
For sweets, keep strictly to unprocessed sugars. Dark chocolate and honey are good choices.
Is the Mediterranean diet good for weight loss?
The Mediterranean diet is fantastic for weight loss. Still, it isn't a free ticket to indulge in its fattier offerings like nuts, pasta, seeds and dairy.
For weight loss, portion control is your biggest weapon. By controlling portions and choosing the very lowest-calorie foods as your staples, you give yourself an excellent opportunity to lose significant levels of weight over as little as 8 to 16 weeks.
One of the most significant elements of the Mediterranean diet is that you'll need to abstain from certain foods, mainly processed foods. Check our guide on foods for over-50s to avoid for another list of foods to keep at arm's length.
If you have a sweet tooth, you can still sustain it by choosing healthy sweets and deserts. Fruit and nuts like pistachios are super-healthy, sweet and taste delicious with dairy-based sweets like yoghurts.
The aim is to reduce processed sweets to nil and keep portions small. So long as the portions are small, sweet foods are easy to integrate into the Mediterranean diet.
To turbocharge your weight loss efforts, you’ll need to concentrate on limiting the following:
- Seeds and nuts, don’t overgorge and consume them at breakfast or lunch.
- Pasta and bread should also be limited; stick to whole grain options and don't consume any past 7 pm. Moderate amounts of whole grains are great for health.
- Fish portions should be relatively small; you don't need to consume much fish to reap the health rewards.
- Dairy is perhaps the biggest one to watch; keep consumption of dairy products infrequent and portions low.
- Excessive sugary fruit like berries, oranges, apricots and nectarines can also harm your weight loss efforts. Don’t avoid them, but limit portions. They can be great when eaten as part of a typical dietary pattern and contain many nutrients and antioxidants, but look to swap some fruits for vegetables or pulses such as chickpeas.
- Pack vegetables into soups for lower-calorie lunches served with whole-wheat bread on the side.
The role of exercise
The high health and fitness of Mediterranean natives are also down to their active lifestyles. The Mediterranean way is to walk lots, particularly in Italian culture.
To make your Mediterranean diet initiative successful, look to integrate more exercise into your daily life. Of course, you don't need to run marathons to lose weight, but sticking to the recommended exercise levels at a bare minimum is fundamental.
There are plenty of exercises you can do at any age. You can also sign up for some fitness programmes, get outside and stay generally active throughout the year.
We may not have all-year sun here as they do in the Med, but that isn’t an excuse for turning into a couch potato during the winter!
Participating in sports is a common practice in most European countries, with retired people, in particular, playing relaxing games well into old age. The benefits of doing so are not just confined to physical health; there are mental health benefits, cognitive benefits, and the benefits associated with participating in social activities.
A systematic review of the effects of Mediterranean diets on the prevention of cardiovascular disease found that this type of diet reduced the risk of heart attack significantly. But combining the diet with cardiovascular exercise and resistance training can be even more effective at reducing risk factors.
What is the fastest way to lose weight on the Mediterranean diet?
Simply put, if you follow all of the principles outlined in this article and stick to them for the long term, then the chances are that you'll lose weight.
It might be fast - you might see results after just one to two weeks. However, it's more likely that you'll need around 8 to 16 weeks of sustained effort to see results, which is entirely normal.
If you don't see results immediately, don't panic and do not give up. Instead, think of that beautiful Mediterranean Sea and gorgeous foods like feta, hummus, lentils, and quinoa, and get creative with your meal plan.
Just think it's only a matter of time, and it will be 100% worth it.
We spoke to Lola Biggs, Dietician at Together Health, who also advocated exploring a Nordic diet. Lola told Health Times: “Nordic and Mediterranean diets have lots of similarities. They are both big on plant-based foods that include plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, and pulses. On top of that, both incorporate a good amount of omega-rich, fatty fish such as sardines which are heart-healthy. You’ll also find that both diets limit the number of sugars, red meat, and processed foods.
"Differences come down to the types of fruits, veggies, and fish. The Nordic diet relies more on heartier foods grown in colder climates like root veggies (think beets, carrots, and turnips), fruits such as plums, apples and berries like lingonberries and fish like herring. The Nordic diet also includes more fermented foods like dairy (kefir) and fermented fish that can offer good gut-friendly probiotic bacteria. A typical Mediterranean diet uses more warm weather and antioxidant-rich foods such as figs, melons, aubergines, juicy ripe tomatoes, and red peppers. Think sunshine foods on a plate!
"Both diets are generally healthy as they tend to limit the number of processed foods and saturated fats. One of the biggest differences between the two diets comes down to the oil they use. The Mediterranean diet uses extra virgin olive oil while the Nordic diet uses canola oil from the rapeseed plant. Both are excellent sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fats and boost good cholesterol.
"Both diets can be sustainable as you are generally eating more local, seasonal, and organic produce. As well as being well-balanced, both can be affordable as you are creating meals out of mostly whole grains, beans/lentils and plants that can be versatile and cheap.”