A Whole-Foods Diet for the Whole Planet
When you think of the “Mediterranean diet,” what comes to mind? In my experience, people seem to dwell on a handful of notions. It’s olive oil and red wine . . . lots of garlic and tomatoes . . . seafood . . . pasta? . . . It’s vaguely Italian, French, Greek, or Spanish. . . . None of those ideas are wrong, nor are they completely accurate—because they don’t tell the whole story of this ancient way of eating, nor do they reveal the full, flavorful bounty of this diet, one that is as healthy as it is delicious. For thousands of years, people along the Mediterranean coastline have shared many of the same dietary staples—especially olives and olive oil, fish and seafood, a lush bounty of fresh vegetables in every color of the rainbow, juicy ripe fruits (including grapes for eating and wine-making), nuts, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
We tend to think of Western European countries—most notably France, Italy, Spain, and Greece—as the originators of the Mediterranean diet, but given the centuries-old, cross-cultural history of the region, as well as a shared climate and similar growing seasons, you’ll find some of the same foods served in North African and Middle Eastern countries as well. Portugal’s coastline is primarily Atlantic, but there they follow many classic variations on the Mediterranean diet.
And from region to region, these variations only broaden the possibilities of the flavors you’ll encounter—French thyme instead of rosemary, garlic-roasted eggplant served with couscous instead of grilled zucchini and pasta, Greek feta instead of Spanish manchego, and so on. The breadth of fresh, simple flavors and their mouth-watering possibilities make this diet versatile and appealing, and it has long been associated with excellent health and longevity.
What’s the other reason why the nutrient-rich traditional Mediterranean diet is synonymous with wellness? It’s because of what people don’t eat. Red meat is uncommon, and processed meats even rarer. Processed foods, including refined carbohydrates loaded with artificial flavorings, are almost nonexistent. Sugary treats are reserved for celebrations. Serving sizes, including protein portions, are smaller than what we are used to.
On top of that, Mediterranean people are physically active, every single day, and have a strong sense of community and connection. They enjoy life, they enjoy real food, and they enjoy sharing it with others. Combine a delicious diet and a less stressful, happier way of living, and the result is this: people who are trim and fit, with lower rates of chronic disease and longer life spans.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to live in the Mediterranean to enjoy the health-boosting benefits of this delicious food and leisurely lifestyle. You can eat and live this way wherever you call home. The Mediterranean Method is designed to help you embrace this traditional diet in a practical, modern way—to help you get healthy, and stay that way. Whether or not you’ve ventured abroad, you deserve to know more about the true Mediterranean diet and its benefits, a way of eating—and living—that is linked to record levels of longevity and low rates of chronic disease. And in contrast to all the crazy fad diets that have come and gone over the last couple of decades, this one has been around for thousands of years.
Diving into the Mediterranean—and the Blue Zones Beyond
There are more than a few misconceptions about the Mediterranean diet—and the lifestyle that goes with it—starting with the name itself. While the Mediterranean Basin is indeed where you’ll find most of the people who enjoy this food, as discussed earlier, it’s not strictly European. You’ll find followers of a Mediterranean diet in Portugal, North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, and Middle Eastern regions, including Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.
Farther afield, you’ll find a very similar style of eating and living—lots of plant foods, healthy fats, little (if any) red meat, plenty of physical activity—in communities as diverse as Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. What do those far-flung locales have in common with Mediterranean regions? Like places such as the Italian island of Sardinia and the Greek island of Ikaria, they are all considered “Blue Zones,” the name given to at least five specific regions around the world by a team of researchers, led by National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, who have set out to chronicle the habits of the healthiest and longest-lived people around the globe.
The Blue Zones are home to communities of individuals who routinely live without disease well into their 80s, 90s, and beyond. Interestingly, while there are marked variations in what Blue Zone dwellers eat based on their location, there are more similarities than differences.
Loma Linda is home to a large community of Seventh-day Adventists, many of whom are descendants of the original founders of the church itself. For religious reasons, they are vegetarian and eat far more plants than animal foods, which are limited to eggs and dairy. The residents of Okinawa are famous for their robust health and low rates of heart disease, cancer, and dementia—the women there live longer than women anywhere else on earth—and they eat lots of vegetables and fish. The people of Nicoya, Costa Rica, are active outdoors like their Mediterranean counterparts—getting much needed vitamin D from the sun—and they build their diets around a traditional dish of fiber-rich beans, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as some dairy.
Of course, there are significant differences. Unlike people along the Mediterranean, Loma Linda residents eat very little seafood, Okinawans consume lots of fermented foods such as soy products, and the whole grain of choice in Costa Rica is corn. But despite such variations, there are overlapping themes with the plant-rich Mediterranean diet, with foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, and fish.
Travel back to the Mediterranean region and you’ll find the famed Blue Zone of Sardinia, home to a relatively high proportion of centenarians who are the source of much curiosity. What’s their secret? Besides their active lifestyle and connection to community and family, Sardinians are famous for their production (and consumption) of a particular type of native red wine, Cannonau, that is high in polyphenols, the antioxidant compounds that give red wine its proven protective benefits, especially with regard to heart disease. But it isn’t just this special red wine that make them live so long and healthy, as Sardinians also follow a traditional Mediterranean diet very closely, which likely provides the greatest benefit.
The other well-known Mediterranean Blue Zone is the Greek island of Ikaria, dubbed “the island where people forgot to die.” Interestingly, one researcher points out that their consumption of polyphenols—not from wine but from a diverse array of herbs like wild mint and rosemary—probably plays a role in their good health and lack of disease.
It seems that wherever they live, however they compose their meals based on geography or ethnicity, availability of foods, and tradition, followers of a Mediterranean-style diet have much in common when they choose what to eat: plentiful fiber-packed vegetables and fruits, nuts, flavors from healthy fats, herbs and spices, little to no red meat, clean protein such as fresh seafood, beans and legumes, some dairy, moderate amounts of organically raised poultry and eggs, and whole grains. And we can zero in on the Mediterranean region specifically for extra-virgin olive oil as a healthy fat, along with moderate consumption of red wine.
While the diets of people in non-Mediterranean Blue Zones are clearly beneficial, based on my experience—as a physician advocating for health through nutrition, and as a trained chef who loves to make delicious meals—I always return to the original Mediterranean diet, with its straightforward emphasis on seasonal whole foods. The reason why I recommend it to patients and serve it at my table to friends and family is simple: It’s the easiest, healthiest, and best-tasting diet to follow on the planet.