“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” —Hippocrates
During these uncertain and stressful times, eating healthy is most likely not a priority for most people. With job uncertainty, schools still being closed despite the new semester beginning, and economic turmoil being the primary focus of every major news network, what you choose to eat is probably the last thing on your mind. But it is exactly because of these reasons that the Mediterranean diet is more important than ever.
Stress causes strain on your body that can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and many other illnesses. So, managing it is paramount to better your physical health as well as better your emotional well-being. While we can all understand the physical positive and negative correlations that comes with what we eat, I don’t think people fully understand how important the role of food has when it comes to your mental health.
What you eat affects your mental well-being. From a scientific perspective, the bacteria in your GI tract influences the production of neurotransmitters that carry messages to the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. An unhealthy diet can cause inflammation which will obstruct the neurotransmitter production, while a healthy diet will positively affect production. To put it simply, if you eat good food, your brain will receive positive messages. If you eat unhealthy food, your brain will not receive these messages, which can cause negative emotions.
While the unhealthiness of fast food is known to all of us, that still hasn’t stopped the growth of its industry. In 2018, McDonald’s had 38 million in U.S. sales, followed by Starbucks with 19 million and Subway with 10 million. The convenience of being able to pull through a drive-thru and order food already made, without us having to grocery shop, prep, cook, and clean up afterwards has become a justification for us to eat unhealthily. But in the long run, that could end up costing us — According to the CDC, heart disease alone costs the United states an average of $219 billion each year. This includes health care services, medicines, and loss of productivity.
But with so many diets out there, how do we know which one to choose from? It seems like every year, there’s another fad diet promoting health and wellness that if you took the time to research, either isn’t actually good for you or doesn’t have any real evidence to support its claims. But one with both sufficient evidence and proves to be legitimately healthy year after year is the Mediterranean Diet. What sets the Mediterranean diet apart from the others is the fact that is really is not a “diet,” it is simply a pattern of choosing healthy alternatives over unhealthy ones. So, there is no one way to succeed and you can adjust it to fit into your lifestyle, eating habits, and schedule.
Facts about the Mediterranean Diet
- The Mediterranean-style diet is recommended by the American Heart Association.
- 2020 became the third year in a row that it has been ranked the #1 Best Diets Overall by U.S. News & World Report.
- Research has provided significant evidence that the diet can reduce symptoms of depression.
What Is It?
Cited as being perhaps the world’s healthiest diet, the Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, olive oil, fish, poultry, and moderate amounts of red wine, while cutting out processed and sugary foods and lowering (or cutting out, depending on your preference) the intake of red meat.
- Fresh Fruit: Has vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants, and are good sources of energy. They reduce obesity and help you maintain a healthy weight, as well as provide a good substitute to candy and sugary sweets. Good sources: apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries, pomegranates, grapes, dates, figs (Recommended 3+ servings per day)
- Fresh Vegetables: An important source of fiber, vitamins, potassium, and folic acid that can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, promote gastrointestinal health, and maintain healthy blood pressure levels. Good sources: tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, kale, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers (Recommended 3+ servings per day)
- Grains: Great sources of fiber, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and many nutrients that reduces the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as provides a source of protein. Good sources: whole oats, brown rice, whole wheat, pasta, rye, corn, barley (Recommended 3–6 servings per day)
- Nuts, Legumes, and Seeds: Contains lean proteins. Legumes and beans are also rich with minerals and essential vitamins. This group also has healthy plant oils that may can help with reducing stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Good sources: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts (Recommended at least 3 servings per week)
- Olive Oil: (preferably extra virgin) is loaded with beneficial fatty acids, contains antioxidants that may reduce risk of diseases and help fight inflammation. Oleic acid is prominent in olive oil, which reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, and potentially fights cancer. (Recommended at least 1 Tbsp a day)
- Fish: Fatty fish are omega-3 rich, which promotes heart and brain health, have antioxidants, and are protein rich. Good sources: salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, tilapia, cod (Recommended at least twice a week)
- Poultry: Has antioxidants, improves immune system, contains vitamins B3 & B6 which help convert carbohydrates into glucose, and helps with nerve function. Good sources: chicken, turkey, duck (Recommended at least once a week)
- Red wine: If consumed in low or moderate amounts, such as just with your meal, it can lower bad cholesterol, reduces risk of cancer, keeps your heart healthy with antioxidants, and can regulate blood sugar. (Recommended 1–2 glasses per day)
How Do You Start?
The foundation of the diet is plant-based foods. So, focus on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Popular grains such as bread and pasta have endless recipes that can be utilized to keep meals original, while cooking in olive oil provides a healthy alternative to butter and other cooking oils. Adding fish and poultry a couple of times a week broadens your meal options. Limiting — or cutting out completely — the amount of red meat and processed foods / processed sugars is what should be aimed for with the Mediterranean diet in order to achieve the full benefits. Start by making small changes, as every positive shift can yield beneficial results: choose to eat more vegetables than meat or switch to olive oil instead of other cooking oils. Over time, incorporate more grains over red meat or try some recipes that turn fruit into delicious desserts.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Life
With everything happening in the world right now, it’s easy to lose focus of our physical and mental health. But it’s times of stress that shows us why taking care of ourselves is more important than anything else. Taking everything into account, it is obvious why the Mediterranean diet is the best way to achieve health and wellness. There are numerous articles online that can assist you in making changes, big or small, as well as provide evidence to all the benefits that come with choosing these healthy foods. As stated above, this type of eating can help regulate blood sugar to lower the risk of diabetes, prevent heart disease, lowers the risk of stroke and high blood pressure, cuts your risk of high cholesterol and obesity, keeps blood vessels open, reduces the risk of dementia, and lowers the risk of cancer. We can’t take care of our loved ones without first caring for ourselves, so choosing to make healthy eating decisions will not only benefit us but will benefit our families as well.