Friend or Fad: Are These Trendy Diets Good for You?
Registered dietitian Lisa Muras weighs in on the pros and cons of five popular food regimens.
Many of us would love to shed a few pounds and feel better. Is dieting the answer? We asked Lisa Muras, a registered dietitian with Virginia Hospital Center’s Outpatient Diabetes & Nutrition Program, to weigh in.
The Mediterranean Diet
What is it?
This style of eating follows the diets of people who live in the countries along the Mediterranean Sea. There are no specific food restrictions. Rather, it’s a framework emphasizing minimally processed, mostly plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains; fish and dairy (such as yogurt and cheese); and a high amount of healthy fats—principally olive oil. Whole grains such as wheat, oats and barley are served at most meals; nuts, beans, legumes and seeds are eaten daily; and herbs and spices are used liberally and in place of added salt. Fish and shellfish are important protein sources, while meat is eaten in smaller portions. Sweets are consumed in small amounts and fruit can be a substitute for sweetened desserts. Wine is consumed in moderation, but water is the primary beverage. This diet emphasizes cooking at home and using local ingredients. It also promotes the social and mindful aspects of enjoying food, like sitting down to meals and enjoying meals in the company of others.
Mediterranean diets have stood the test of time. Long-term research has shown remarkable health outcomes associated with this style of eating, including increased life span, improved brain function, better eye health, lower risk of certain cancers, decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes, lower levels of blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, protection against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, improved rheumatoid arthritis and greater fertility. The traditional Mediterranean diet is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, phytochemicals such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, vitamin C, tocopherols (vitamin E), polyphenols (flavonoids) and dietary fiber. Despite the presence of heart-healthy fats, many people lose weight on the Mediterranean diet because they do not feel deprived or hungry.
It’s important to remember that Mediterranean eating is a dietary pattern, meaning that adding one or two Mediterranean food components while still maintaining a mostly Western diet (pepperoni pizza with a glass of red wine, for example) will not provide much benefit. It can sometimes be difficult to recognize whether a food fits into the Mediterranean pattern, as there are no set “rules” to follow, leaving some feeling lost. The shift to Mediterranean can be a dramatic change for people who don’t like (or know how) to cook and plan meals; there may be a steep learning curve. Also, some of the recommended foods can be expensive, such as olive oil, seafood and avocados.
The Mediterranean eating pattern isn’t really a fad diet; it’s been around for centuries and has consistently been shown to promote good health. It doesn’t restrict food groups, allows for occasional treats in moderation and encourages a healthy outlook toward food.