The World's Healthiest Diet
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The World's Healthiest Diet

The more doctors test it, the more they find that eating Mediterranean is the absolute best way to lose weight. Based on the cooking and eating styles of Italy, France, Greece, Spain, and other Mediterranean countries, the plan features olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and poultry, whole grains and, yes, wine! It's high in heart-healthy fats and, unlike other diets, doesn't forbid any food group. "It's hard to stay on extreme diets," says Harvard nutrition expert Walter Willett, MD, PhD, whose book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy popularized the approach in the United States. "This diet has lots of variety and wonderful flavors so people stick with it."

What You Get to Eat (and Drink)

Fruits and vegetables: Get your fill of antioxidant-rich choices, which promote heart health. Make a dinner of a green leafy salad tossed with red pepper, chunks of chicken breast, and sunflower seeds. Or have a frozen-fruit smoothie for dessert (blend frozen mangoes, strawberries, or bananas with low-fat yogurt or milk).

How much: 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of veggies per day.

Fish: To get protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, replace at least two meat meals each week with fish or other seafood. Healthiest prep: poaching, broiling, grilling, or sauteing in olive or canola oil. Children and pregnant or nursing women should be especially careful to eat fish that's low in mercury (find out more at epa.gov).

How much: At least two 3-ounce servings a week.

Beans: All varieties are excellent sources of low-fat protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Include kidney, black, red, fava, garbanzo, cannellini, or any other type in soups, salads, stews, lasagna, or casseroles; or mash with herbs and spices as a dip for vegetables.

How much: 1/2 to 2/3 cup cooked beans at least three times a week.

Herbs and spices: Oregano, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, basil, anise, garlic, and pepper not only add Mediterranean flavor, they also contain healthy antioxidants. "Just half a teaspoon of dried oregano has as many antioxidants as 3 cups of spinach," says dietitian Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD.

How much: Use liberally, to taste, at every meal.

Nuts and seeds: They're high in antioxidants and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which have a steadying effect on blood sugar and keep you feeling full. Since they're also high in calories, combine with other foods, for example, by serving almonds with steamed veggies and walnuts with oatmeal.

How much: 1 to 1 1/2 ounces daily.

Healthy oils: The monounsaturated fats in olive and other healthy oils like canola, sesame, walnut, peanut, and grapeseed are good for your heart. Since 1 tablespoon has 120 calories, sprinkle -- don't pour -- over salads, grilled veggies, and whole-grain pasta or bread.

How much: 3 to 5 teaspoons daily.

Whole grains: They contain more vitamins, minerals, and protein than white-flour products and have a stabilizing influence on blood-sugar levels. Experiment with nutrient-dense, nutty-tasting exotic whole grains such as barley, amaranth, quinoa, and faro. But watch your intake: One cup of cereal equals two servings, as do two slices of pumpernickel bread.

How much: Four 1/2-cup servings daily.

Wine: It's a Mediterranean diet staple to have a glass (particularly red) with meals. In moderation, alcohol of any kind may help reduce heart disease risk. "But if you don't drink, don't worry," says Dr. Bazilian. "Alcohol isn't the diet's main healthy factor."

How much: Moderation for women means one glass of wine or one cocktail daily; more raises your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and breast cancer.

6 Reasons to Try It

You don't just lose pounds -- the Mediterranean diet also helps you feel better and live longer.

1. Lasting weight loss. How can a diet that features nuts, oils, pasta, bread, and wine help you lose weight? Because it makes you feel full and therefore holds hunger at bay. The healthy fats and protein in the Mediterranean diet keep your glucose (blood sugar) level on an even keel, which means you'll be less apt to hunt down chips, cookies, or fast food to get through the day.

A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet for two years lost more weight than low-fat dieters and maintained their 10-pound loss. "You don't feel hungry," explains Meir Stampfer, MD, DrPH, a coauthor of the study and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston. Don't believe us about protein's fill power? Dr. Stampfer suggests this little experiment: "One morning eat white toast and jam for breakfast. The next day have scrambled eggs." The egg meal, Dr. Stampfer promises, will leave you more energetic and a lot less hungry at 11 a.m.

2. A strong, healthy heart. Eating Mediterranean decreases practically every heart-disease risk factor -- high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. When 605 patients who'd had a first heart attack followed the diet for four years, they had a 50 to 70 percent lower risk of having a second heart attack, angina, or a stroke or pulmonary embolism. "There's no single aspect of the diet that keeps your heart healthy," says Dr. Stampfer; it's the synergy of all the diet's elements. Antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, and beans help prevent the atherosclerosis that can make plaque build up in arteries. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish lower blood pressure, arrhythmia risk, and triglyceride levels. Olive oil lessens LDL ("bad") cholesterol. And wine and other spirits in moderation may lower heart-disease risk.

3. Diabetes prevention. In a new Annals of Internal Medicine study, 215 type 2 diabetics were asked to follow either a low-fat or a Mediterranean diet. After four years only 44 percent of the Mediterranean group needed diabetes medication -- but 70 percent of the low-fat eaters did. The Med dieters also lost more weight. Other research shows that the diet helps people with pre-diabetes lower their blood sugar enough to avoid developing full-blown type 2 diabetes.

4. Better eyesight. The diet could help stave off or prevent macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss after age 54. The condition, which affects more than 10 million Americans, destroys the part of your retina responsible for the clear central vision you need to read, drive, and recognize faces. A recent study linked eating fish and vegetables to a reduced risk of getting it early, and the omega-3 fatty acids in fish can lower the risk of the disease altogether. What's more, the lutein in green leafy vegetables cuts your chance of cataracts and boosts retinal health, says Dr. Willett.

5. Reduced Alzheimer's risk. Eating Mediterranean may help cut your chance of Alzheimer's disease by 40 percent, shows a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And people who added regular exercise to the diet were 60 percent less likely to get Alzheimer's.

6. Longer life. A recent meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal found the diet significantly improved health and led to a 9 percent reduction in death from heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. Other studies have found that the diet's healthy fats may lessen the inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis and cut the risk of getting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) by 60 percent.

Diet Rules

For details on how to follow the Mediterranean diet, we turned to dietician Wendy Bazilian, author of The SuperFoods Rx Diet, who creates nutritious menus for her clients.

1. Know the percentages. Your diet should have about 50 percent carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains; 35 percent fats from healthy oils, nuts, seeds, and fish; and 15 percent protein from legumes, fish, nuts, dairy, poultry, and eggs.

2. Count calories. To lose weight, a 150-pound woman should eat about 1,400 calories a day. For maintenance, up the count to 1,800.

3. Limit red meat and sweets. Get no more than 8 percent of daily calories as saturated fat -- that means just 3 to 4 ounces of beef or lamb per week (12 to 16 ounces a month max, if you prefer a few big meals). Limit rich desserts to a few times per week. Otherwise, have fresh or frozen fruit.

4. Eat poultry, eggs, and fish, but not every day. Have chicken, turkey, or eggs every other day; serve fish at least twice a week.

5. Switch to non- or low-fat dairy. Get two to three 8-ounce servings of milk or yogurt daily for calcium and other nutrients. And limit butter.

6. Focus on healthy fats and carbs. "The lion's share of fat comes from what's found naturally in such foods as olive oil, nuts, avocado, and fish," says Dr. Bazilian. Base your diet on healthy, whole-grain carbs -- pasta, bread, cereal, tortillas, and brown rice. Save white flour and white rice for special occasions.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.

 
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