Achieving Holistic Health with the Mediterranean Diet

What is Holistic Health?

Holistic health is a lifestyle approach that considers the whole person and how they interact with their environment. The goal is to achieve optimal well being and functionality by focusing on someone as a whole instead of a specific illness or body part. Holistic health care emphasizes whole body healing through a connection between mind, body, spirit, and food. 

At Heart Spring Health, we see patients as people, not as their diseases. We believe that through a holistic approach to medicine, self-care, mindfulness, and food, whole body healing can occur.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet is not a “quick fix” diet plan, nor is it recommended for rapid weight loss. It is a long-term way of eating that focuses on heart health and cancer prevention through recipes and foods originating from countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The key components of the diet include eating mostly plant-based foods, replacing trans fats with nuts and olive oil, eating fish and poultry regularly, and limiting red meat.

Unlike traditional diets, the Mediterranean Diet does not limit fat consumption. Instead, hydrogenated oils and saturated fats are discouraged, while healthier monounsaturated olive oil, fatty fish, and raw nuts are encouraged. The diet calls for increasing vegetable intake as well as legumes (beans), whole grains, and fruits. Potatoes and processed starches should be avoided. Additionally, it is recommended to limit intake of fast foods and processed foods that are high in sodium and saturated fat. Finally, a high volume of water consumption is emphasized with the Mediterranean Diet.

Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

Historical studies have shown that people living in the Mediterranean region were notably more healthy than Americans with a lower risk of various fatal diseases. More recent research indicates that the Mediterranean Diet reduces the risk of heart disease and lowers levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (bad cholesterol). Additionally, adults who follow the diet appear to have a lower risk of cardiovascular mortality and mortality overall.

Data collected from people who follow the Mediterranean Diet also shows that there are less incidences of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer disease. The “SETA PROJECT” study by Annals of Oncology showed that women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with fish, nuts, and extra-virgin olive oil may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.

How to Incorporate the Mediterranean Diet into Your Lifestyle

With the long list of health benefits provided by the Mediterranean Diet, it may seem like a difficult task to adopt such a healthy way of eating. However, with some simple adjustments, you can begin reaping the benefits of a Mediterranean Diet and be on your way to holistic health. The following tips will help you incorporate the diet into your current lifestyle.

  • Instead of abruptly removing the foods discouraged with the Mediterranean Diet, try adding in the suggested foods slowly.
  • Replace butters and other saturated fats with healthy fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, raw nuts, sunflower seeds, avocados, and olives are great options.
  • Choose complex carbohydrates (whole grains) instead of simple carbs, such as processed flour, bread, and refined sugar.
  • Add small portions of grass-fed or free-range meat to legumes and soups in order to help you adjust to the flavors.
  • Pre-cook brown rice and other whole grains so that they are easy to add to a variety of meals throughout the week.
  • To help control portions, satiety can be more easily achieved by adding olive oil and legumes to lots of different foods.  
  • Replace red meat with protein found in fish, beans, eggs, nuts, and skinless chicken and turkey.
  • Try having fruit for dessert instead of processed sweets.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation. Red wine is a recommended alcohol choice for the Mediterranean Diet.
  • Instead of salt, try using fresh herbs, dried spices, or citrus juices to add flavor to your food.
  • Aim for two servings of seafood each week. Salmon, tuna, cod, sardines, and shellfish are great options.
  • Instead of chips and cookies, snack on fresh or dried fruit, unsalted nuts, raw vegetables, and hummus.
  • Try to take your time chewing while you eat and really savor your food. A primary component to the Mediterranean lifestyle is slowing down to enjoy food and practicing mindful eating.
  • Eat dairy in moderation and try to consume unprocessed cheese and Greek yogurt, if possible.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Adopt an active lifestyle. Simple activities such as daily walks will suffice.
  • Switch lattes and other milk-heavy coffee drinks with espresso or tea.
  • Try to eat locally and select produce based on what’s in season.
  • Share relaxing meals with friends and family and try to avoid eating while watching television, driving, or during other distracting activities.

A Note on Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin olive oil is mechanically extracted directly from olives without high heat and further processing. Some oils, such as canola oil, are chemically extracted. These oils are not considered to hold the same health benefits as virgin olive oil. The highest grade and purest form of olive oil is extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), which meets a certain chemical criteria but does not have a significant variation in taste.

Unlike wine, EVOO is perishable. Its aroma and flavor profile will start to deteriorate a few months after milling the olives. As olives are stone fruits, similar to plums and cherries, the most pure kind of oil is fresh-pressed from in-season olives and will taste the best in the first few weeks after it is extracted. High-quality EVOO should have fruity notes and taste fresh and not bitter.

There are some key components to check when you go to purchase your bottle of EVOO to ensure you are getting the benefits that you are paying for:

  • EVOO is typically sold at a higher price per ounce than virgin olive oil but contains more heart-healthy benefits. Additionally, consumers should be suspicious of significantly lower-priced EVOO-labeled products.
  • Check the back label to see if it is from a single source. If the label indicates that it contains a blend of olive oil from a variety of countries and regions, it will not be as pure.
  • It’s a good idea to also check for a harvest date on the label and select the most recent bottle.
  • Some organizations, such as the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association require EVOO to meet quality standards that are more strict than the USDA. A certification from one of these organizations is a good sign of a quality product as well.

A Holistic Food Plan for the Whole Person

With a focus on fresh vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, and seafood, the Mediterranean Diet is a long-term lifestyle that assists with vitality, longevity, and optimal well being for a person as a whole.

According to a study by the Annals of Internal Medicine, women who consumed a Mediterranean-style diet were 40% more likely to live past age 70 than women who did not adopt the diet. The study analyzed health data from 11,000 women in their late 50s for 15 years. Those who ate a Mediterranean Diet were also less likely to develop chronic diseases or physical disabilities.

The exact food list and recommended guidelines for the Mediterranean Diet can vary slightly as there are differences in culinary traditions between each country in the Mediterranean region. Also, it’s important to remember that this is a general guideline and the Mediterranean Diet can be adjusted for a person’s specific needs and taste.

To learn more about the Mediterranean Diet and how it can help you to achieve maximum holistic health, contact one of our knowledgeable naturopathic doctors at Heart Spring Health.