The Mediterranean Diet - Delicious, Flavorful, Healthy

By: Rebecca Roussell, RDN, LDN, CDCES, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, Thibodaux Regional Health System

Overwhelming evidence confirms that the Mediterranean Diet lowers the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Named for the traditional eating and cooking patterns of people in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the eating plan has been consistently shown to improve blood glucose control and to help prevent blood glucose spikes by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance. The Mediterranean diet also protects the heart by lowering and controlling blood pressure and blood cholesterol.

This eating plan includes and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, minimally processed foods, legumes, lean protein (fish, seafood, skinless chicken / turkey), healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil, olives, nuts, seeds), and fat-free or low-fat dairy and yogurt while limiting sweets, sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, red meats, processed meats, fast foods, refined grains, and saturated fats like butter. Sweets are consumed only occasionally for celebratory events; the typical daily dessert is a controlled portion of fresh fruit. Cooking seasonal and local food products with olive oil, spices, and herbs rather than salt allows healthy cooking without sacrificing taste.

More Than Food

The Mediterranean diet isn’t just about what is eaten — it’s also about how it is eaten. Slowing down and taking time to relax and enjoy a meal with family or friends is key. Instead of eating on-the-go or in front of the television, locals savor their food in a relaxed environment. As a result, each meal is more satisfying and reduces stress while improving digestion.

Great for Diabetics

Managing diabetes requires lifestyle change, such as shifting to more homemade meals; limiting foods that raise blood glucose quickly (like sugar, sweetened beverages, and refined grains); choosing healthy, high-fiber foods; controlling portions; and increasing physical activity. The Mediterranean diet is not a set of strict guidelines, but more about swapping out unhealthy foods for healthy ones. It also uses portion size to control total carbohydrate and calorie intake—which, of course, leads to optimal blood glucose control.

Features of the Mediterranean Eating Plan:

Whole Grain Bread, Cereal, & Starchy Foods = “Turn to Whole Grains” — whole wheat, buckwheat, rye, bulgur, barley, couscous, quinoa, corn, muesli, whole oats, brown rice, whole-wheat, or whole grain bread, tortillas, pasta, and cereal.

Recommend: 4 or more servings per day

Serving Size = 1 oz. bread, ½ cup cooked cereal, ¾ cup dry cereal, 1/3 cup cooked rice or pasta

TIP = Choose grains that list whole grain as the first or second ingredient on the food label.

Non-Starchy Vegetables = “Fill Up On” — non-starchy vegetables provide satiety, fiber, and key nutrients. Choose a variety of colors and textures: tomato, zucchini, squash, green beans, cauliflower, carrot, cucumber, asparagus, onion, mushroom, eggplant, bell pepper, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, turnips, radish, celery, spinach, kale, leafy greens, and mustard or turnip greens.

Recommend: 4 or more servings per day

Serving Size = ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw

TIP = Choose fresh, local, and in-season vegetables or frozen as a second choice.

Prepare by steaming, grilling, roasting, stir-fry, or eating raw

Legumes (Lentils, Dried Beans & Peas) = “Get Friendly with Legumes” — high in fiber and provides some protein. Add any type of legume, such as lentils, kidney(red) bean, navy (white) bean, lima (butter) bean, pinto bean, soy bean (Edamame), black bean, chickpea, garbanzo bean, split pea, field pea, and black-eyed peas.

Recommend: 3 or more servings per week

Serving Size = ½ cup after cooked = 1-ounce Meat + 1 Carbohydrate serving

TIP = Try a meatless meal at least 2 x week.

Fruits = “Munch On” — fruits are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber for optimal health. Choose a variety of colors of unsweetened fresh fruit: apple, orange, any citrus, cherry, plum, grape, pear, peach, nectarine, apricot, tangerine, or berries.

Recommend: 3 servings per day

Serving Size = 1 small whole fruit or ¾ to 1 cup raw

TIPS = Choose fresh, local, and in-season fruits. Choose fruit in place of dessert at the end of meals.

Fish & Seafood = “Choose More Often” — lean protein sources consumed frequently and can be a source of Omega-3. Choose salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, flounder, tilapia, halibut, haddock, cod, lobster, shrimp, crab, scallops, or clams.

Recommend: 3 or more servings per week

Serving Size at lunch and supper = Women: 2–3 ounces cooked | Men: 3–4 ounces cooked

TIPS = Weigh after cooked without bone. Prepare by bake, broil, boil, grill, steam, poach, smother in water, or roast cooking methods. Avoid breaded or fried fish and seafood, and high fat sauces or gravies.

Poultry (Chicken, Turkey, Egg) = “Small Portions” — lean protein sources. Choose skinless chicken, turkey, and egg in place of red meats. Limit red meats (beef, veal, pork, & lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, deli meats, bacon) to 1 or fewer times each per week.

Recommend: daily. One ounce of meat = 1 whole egg or 2 egg whites only

Serving Size at lunch and supper = Women: 2–3 ounces cooked | Men: 3–4 ounces cooked

TIPS = Weigh after cooked without bone, skin, or fat. Prepare by bake, broil, boil, grill, steam, poach, smother in water, or roast cooking methods. Avoid breaded or fried poultry, and high fat sauces or gravies.

Cheese & Yogurt = “Leave Room For” — good source of protein and calcium. Choose non-fat or low-fat milk, fortified soy milk, yogurt, and cheeses. Choose low-fat or reduced-fat cheese like feta or natural part-skim mozzarella.

Recommend: 2 servings per day

Serving Size = 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1/3 cup ricotta cheese or cottage cheese,1 ounce reduced-fat cheese,

½ cup plain Greek yogurt

TIPS = Use fermented dairy foods, like ricotta cheese & fat-free GREEK yogurt due to easier digestion and beneficial bacteria for good digestive health.

Fats, Oils, Nuts, & Seeds = “Switch to Olive Oil” — olives and olive oil are the main fat source used daily in cooking, baking, and preparing salads and vegetables.

Recommend: 5 or more servings per day dependent on weight loss goals

Serving Size = 1 tsp. Olive Oil, 8 olives, 2 Tbsp. avocado, 1½ teaspoons natural nut butter, 1 Tbsp. seeds, 1 Tbsp. chopped nuts

TIPS = Try to incorporate 1 Tbsp. olive oil per person into the main meal of the day which equals 3 servings of fat. For weight management purposes, keep nuts down to ¼ cup or less daily.

Herbs and Spices = “Spice It Up” — season foods with spices and herbs, such as garlic, onions, marjoram, thyme, basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, dill, cumin, saffron, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg to add flavor and aroma to foods reducing the need for added salt and also boosting health promoting anti-oxidants.

Recommend: daily use as a substitute for salt

TIP = use fresh or dried

Water = “Drink Up” — water is the primary beverage essential for life and proper hydration.

Recommend: Eight 8-ounce glasses or four 16-ounce bottles, or 64 ounces per day

TIP = Avoid sugar sweetened beverages, fruit juices, and regular sports drinks.

Final Word

Mediterranean living is based on healthy foods, physical activity, and enjoyment of life. The journey to better health with a Mediterranean lifestyle can start slowly and gradually over time. It is not realistic to make all changes overnight. Slow changes allow time for new habits to form which can become permanent and not a fad. Live a longer life, lower the risk of health problems, and help prevent and manage diabetes with a more Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.

For more information or to schedule a diabetes nutrition session with a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, contact Thibodaux Regional Wellness Education Center at 985-493-4765.