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Dietitians Dish: What is Mediterranean diet?

By By Iustina Iznaola RD, LD, MDS
Feb. 18, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 17, 2014 at 8:18 p.m.

Iustina Iznaola

The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle and eating guide based on dietary patterns of people living in the Mediterranean basin including Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey and Israel.

In 1960, American scientist Ancel B. Keys observed that the diet in these regions has similar characteristics and shares common foods despite the fact that their cultural food preferences, flavor and cooking methods are quite different.

These common dietary denominators include a daily consumption of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, cereals, olive oil, cheese and yogurt, a weekly consumption of fish, poultry and eggs and a monthly consumption of red meat and sausages.

Scientists have widely tested the Mediterranean diet and its effects on prevention and as part of the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer and obesity.

Many experimental and epidemiological studies conclude that this diet has a favorable effect on the conditions mentioned above.

There are several explanations why this eating pattern has the potential to improve health and lower the risk for chronic diseases:

The high content of dietary fiber in this diet contributes to satiety and hunger reduction.

Increased mastication of foods rich in fiber promotes a higher release of hormones that are important in regulating the sensation of hunger and satiation.

Despite the fact that raw nuts are energy-dense foods, many studies found no association between their daily consumption and weight gain. One explanation is that the body utilizes the unsaturated fat found in nuts more efficiently for energy.

Daily intake of legumes and nuts receive high satiety rating because of their rich content of dietary fiber and proteins.

Consuming salads before the main entree can contribute to fullness and prevention of excess calorie intake.

Mediterranean diet is associated with a consumption of foods low in saturated fat but rich in flavonoids and magnesium that have been shown to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This diet promotes consumption of wholesome foods rather than focusing on individual nutrients such as fat, protein and carbohydrate. It has an emphasis on avoiding processed, high-saturated fat, high-sodium foods such as frozen meals and fast foods. An example of a one-day menu plan can be read below:

Breakfast: Omelette with spinach and feta cheese, 1 slice whole grain bread, coffee or tea

Lunch: Pasta and white bean salad, tomato slices with mozzarella cheese, fresh lemonade or water

Dinner: Sauteed garlic shrimp, basil, cucumber and tomato salad, orzo (small pasta) with pine nuts, red wine

Snack 1: Raw almonds and olives

Snack 2: Pistachios and grapes

Snack 3: Orange and small oatmeal/nut cookie

The Mediterranean diet requires a lifestyle change that includes healthy eating, daily physical activity, smoking cessation and moderate alcohol consumption. The dietary pattern can be easily incorporated in the American lifestyle because a wide variety of fresh foods is readily available at the local grocery stores.

The guidelines and recommendations for diabetic and heart diets are rooted in the Mediterranean diet, and therefore, this diet is highly recommended by the dietitians and other health professionals as part of disease prevention and/or treatment.

If you are interested in learning more about the basics of this diet, make sure to check the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association websites as these offer valuable information, recipes and tips to help you convert from the Western diet to Mediterranean diet.

Iustina Iznaola is a Registered Dietitian at DeTar Hospital. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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