The Biggest Mistake People Make When Trying the Mediterranean Diet

Photo: Getty Images / Linda Raymond
If the Mediterranean diet was up for a superlative in your high school yearbook, it definitely would win "Most Likely To Succeed." The dietary overachiever consistently receives top marks from health professionals for being one of the healthiest, most practical eating plans out there. You’ve probably heard that it’s all about fresh vegetables, seafood, whole grains, and healthy fats. But although the foods on the Mediterranean menu are essential, they’re far from everything when it comes to reaping the eating plan's health benefits.

"What we've started to do is say, 'Oh, people in Sicily have this great quality of life and they're super healthy, it must be the red wine!'" said Rebecca Parekh, CoFounder & CEO of THE WELL, at a recent Well+Good TALK event. "Let's [also] look at what's happening culturally in these communities. You're living a completely different life, and that affects your health outcomes, not just the thing you consume."

Some background: Researchers discovered the Mediterranean diet after observing that people on the Greek island of Crete lived longer than the general population—and people in nearby areas of the Mediterranean had similarly lower rates of chronic disease. “They looked what these places had in common and identified the key parts of the traditional Mediterranean diet and lifestyle,” says Christy Brissette, R.D., President of Eighty-20 Nutrition. Key word being lifestyle—it wasn't just about how people ate, but how they approached food and their overall daily lives, that researchers found leading to these longevity benefits. But now that the eating plan has gone mainstream, people are focusing too much on food and not enough on the lifestyle aspect as well, Parekh argues.

“As Americans, we glamorize busy as a culture and overlook the benefits of slowing down. At the same time, we tend to view food trends in isolation, rather than as one spoke in a multidimensional wheel of health,” Parekh tells me. “Emotional well-being, stress management, sleep, friendships, purpose, and community are all factors that affect our overall health and well-being. Until we start looking at health holistically, we will continue to create barriers towards our goals.”

Convinced it’s time to incorporate more traditional Mediterranean ways into your life? Here are six lifestyle habits of the Mediterranean diet to boost your overall health.

Want more info about the Mediterranean diet? Here's a quick overview: 

1. Walk as much as you can, whenever you can

Barry's or spin classes aren't a big part of traditional Mediterranean living (surprise!)—but walking is a huge part of daily life. Physical activity strengthens your heart and muscles, plus it’s a science-backed way to relieve stress, notes Jason Ewoldt, R.D., a wellness dietician with Mayo Clinic.

Current guidelines recommend that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity per week (so, at least 20 minutes per day)—and that should be prioritized if you're serious about adopting the full-on Mediterranean lifestyle. But there are lots of ways to hit that quota besides signing up for fitness classes or taking a run. “It’s about working activity into your daily life,” says Brissette. Some ideas: Walk your dog, take breaks at work for fresh air and a stroll around the block, get off the subway a stop early, or park at the farthest spot from the store entrance.

2. Choose local, seasonal ingredients when possible

Fruits and vegetables are a huge part of the Mediterranean diet (vegetables alone make up half of a standard plate!), but sourcing is also important. Eating local, seasonal foods is a big part of the Mediterranean lifestyle; while we have a whole lot more options available to us today, local, seasonal produce is still usually cheaper—and higher in nutritional value—than foods that have been shipped across a continent or ocean, since produce is at its most nutrient dense the moment it's been picked. “The shorter the time between field to fork, the better in terms of nutrition,” says Brissette.

Of course, not every American city has a local farmer’s market, and not every farmer’s market has loads of local produce. Don't not eat vegetables because you can't find good in-season options. But when it’s possible, try to eat local, seasonal foods: berries and zucchini in summer, sweet potatoes and cabbage in winter. “What’s important is to eat what’s available and fresh to you,” says Brissette.

3. Cook at home...

It’s tough to stick to the Mediterranean diet if you eat out every night, says Ewoldt: Most restaurant pasta dishes, for example, are massive portion sizes heavy on the sodium. When you cook at home, however, you control the ingredients. Instead of heavy cream sauce and mounds of macaroni, you can make a single portion of whole grain spaghetti with spinach and tomato sauce. Brisette says home-cooked meals tend to be higher in veggies, fruits, and whole grains, which means they serve up more fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar than restaurant food.

There are of course a lot of barriers to cooking at home: budget, time constraints, lack of knowledge or skill on the basics. “We have to eat, and we have so many choices and don’t want to spend an hour cooking, so we stop and grab a pizza,” says Ewoldt. “A lifestyle change takes time, so you have to make a realistic plan.” Instead of diving in and trying to cook every single meal from scratch right off the bat, he recommends picking two nights a week when everyone is home and you have time to cook, then create menu and plan ahead.

Brissette also suggests filling your freezer with healthy staples (frozen peas, stir fry veggies, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, precooked brown rice) and stocking your pantry with canned goods (chickpeans, beans, lentils, and pureed tomatoes). Then toss them in a quick and healthy meal like scrambled eggs, pasta, soup, salad, or chili. And check out this easy meal plan, which provides five nights of dinners with only one grocery trip required.

4. ...and eat with family and friends

In Italy or Greece, leisurely gatherings around the dinner table often stretch for hours. In some cities, shops regularly shut down for two to three hours at lunchtime so people can gather and eat. And this isn't just about having a nice break (although that is a big perk)—social eating slows you down so you feel your hunger and fullness signals better and therefore are less likely to overeat. It also helps you to feel more connected, which boosts feel-good serotonin and endorphin levels. “There’s more and more research showing social support is important to human health and overall mood. It’s actually linked to living longer,” says Brissette.

Of course, that's not always how we do it here. “In the U.S., a meal is a 10-minute ordeal. You’re eating because you’re hungry and need to get to next event,” says Ewoldt. “Clients tell me they were eating over the kitchen counter, and they look down and their bowl was empty and they didn’t even realize it,” adds Brissette. None of this is particularly great for promoting feelings of fullness or social connection.

Whenever you can, make it a priority to eat with other people—whether it’s brunch with friends or dinner with the neighbors. At work, plan a potluck or ask a coworker to grab lunch away from your desks. “You’ll bring down your stress levels. When you come back, you’ll be more productive if you ate in front of the computer,” says Brissette. You can even make meals alone more special by setting the table and eating off of a plate instead of out of the container.

5. Slow down and savor every bite

Taking more time over your meals isn't just a time to catch up with friends—it's part of the Mediterranean ethos about truly enjoying your food. “Some people eat because they have to. The Mediterranean diet is about eating to enjoy eating,” says Brissette.

Plus, it takes 15 to 20 minutes for our brains to tell us we're full, notes Ewoldt. Slowing down and paying attention to your food often makes it easier to have smaller portions, since you’re more in tune you’re your senses. You might even find that it lessens the grip of a junk food addiction. “I find that when clients who really crave something like chocolate cake actually take the time to savor it, they’ll notice that it’s not that good after all. They were just eating so quickly that they didn’t notice,” says Brissette. Or, it might help you truly enjoy every bite of that cake rather than it go by in a blur. Either way, it's a win.

6. Don’t mindlessly graze between meals

In case it wasn't already clear, sitting down for structured meals is a trademark of the Mediterranean diet. “Meals are sacred and celebrated. You don’t want to not be hungry, because there goes your social time for the day,” says Brissette.

That doesn’t mean you can’t snack—snacking between meals can help manage your appetite. It does mean you have to plan ahead to avoid mindlessly stress-grazing. “Snacking on fruit or veggies is much different than chips and cookies,” says Ewoldt. To avoid hitting the vending machine at 3 p.m., think of your snack as a light meal to tide you over. Try a small handful of nuts with a piece of fruit or carrot sticks dipped in hummus. (Or check out some of these other RD-approved snacks.)

Wait, why did the Mediterranean diet come back this year? And can you do this diet if you hate fish?

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