The Mediterranean diet has quickly become one of the world’s most popular diets, especially in the United States.
What was once a little-known way of eating, mostly in Greece and other southern European countries of the Mediterranean, has now gained prominence on the world stage as one of the healthiest diets in the world.
This article will outline exactly what the Mediterranean diet is, what foods you should incorporate into your life to follow the diet, and how it may help people living with diabetes achieve better blood sugar management and health outcomes.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating based on the foods and cultures found in countries near the Mediterranean sea, including Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
The diet focuses on eating slowly, taking your time to enjoy your food, and really nourishing your body naturally with foods fresh from the earth.
This way of eating isn’t inherent to the fast-paced life of many Americans, who often grab their meals on the go in their vehicles running from one errand to the next.
However, it is gaining momentum as people are starting to experience the benefits of slowing down and appreciating their food more, just like people who live in the Mediterranean do to this day.
What types of foods can you eat on this diet?
The diet focuses primarily on fresh, unprocessed whole foods including fruits, vegetables, seafood and fish, olive oils, legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, unrefined grains, and even coffee, tea, and red wine.
The fewer ingredients, the better! Most foods on this diet do not come from packages, ensuring that the diet is full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Followers of the diet avoid processed foods, refined sugars, most red meats, and many dairy products.
Following this diet does not require people to count calories or macronutrients, making it a flexible option for many people.
Best foods to eat on the Mediterranean diet
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Bell peppers
- Collard greens
Fruit & Berries
Nuts, seeds, and healthy fats
- Brazil nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil
Beans and legumes
- Green peas
- Kidney beans
- Black beans
- Cannellini beans
- Bulgar wheat
Fish and seafood
Poultry, dairy, and eggs
- Lower fat cheeses
- Lower fat yogurts
- Lower fat milk
- Wine, in moderation
- Chili powder
Foods to avoid on the Mediterranean diet
You will need to eliminate the following foods to follow the Mediterranean diet well:
- Sweets, such as cookies, candy, ice-cream, cakes, and other treats with added sugars
- Full fat dairy
- Processed meats like sausage, bacon, burgers, deli meats, and hot dogs
- Fast food
- Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and lemonade
- Ultra-processed foods like muffins, potato chips, granola bars, and cereals
What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
There are a plethora of benefits to eating the Mediterranean diet. Some include:
Improved heart health
Researchers from Harvard found that followers of this diet can reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by 25%, dispelling the myth that high-fat diets are bad for the heart.
Additional studies have also found improved cardiovascular health from eating a Mediterranean diet. This not only improves one’s sense of well-being but also increases longevity. This is crucial for people with diabetes because heart disease is our number 1 cause of death.
A meta-analysis of 5 studies found that the Mediterranean diet is just as effective a tool for weight loss as eating a low-carbohydrate diet. The weight loss in study participants was even sustained over the course of an entire year!
Another study (with over 30,000 participants over the span of more than 5 years), showed that eating a Mediterranean diet decreases the incidence of both gaining belly fat and gaining overall body weight over a five-year period.
The Mediterranean diet’s focus on whole, unrefined and unprocessed foods that are full of fiber, minerals, and vitamins make weight loss more achievable because you’re unlikely to suffer from much hunger on this diet.
Type 2 diabetes prevention
In one study, participants on the Mediterranean diet were 52% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than a control group over the span of four years, even without any calorie restriction!
In another study of people with type 2 diabetes, following a Mediterranean diet was linked to both lower blood sugars and lower hba1c levels, most likely due to the fact that eating fewer processed foods improves insulin sensitivity and reduces insulin resistance.
Lower bodily inflammation
Participants in a study experienced a decrease in inflammatory markers when on the Mediterranean diet, compared to a control group. Low-grade, chronic inflammation can be a potential mediator for the development of many cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and lowering overall bodily inflammation can act as a protectant against that.
What are the drawbacks of the Mediterranean diet?
While they seem few and far between, there are some drawbacks to the Mediterranean diet, and eating this way may not be for everyone.
Always work with your doctor and/or nutritionist before beginning any new eating plan.
People who struggle with alcohol addiction, are in recovery, people who are pregnant or are planning on becoming pregnant, or people who have liver and/or kidney issues or deficiencies should be cognizant that the diet allows (and encourages!) a moderate consumption of alcohol, especially red wine, and the diet may pose some issues with your lifestyle and/or stage of life.
The diet also allows for moderate consumption of caffeinated teas and coffees, so if caffeine is an issue for you (or you have a caffeine sensitivity) this is something to look out for.
Some people report that the diet is expensive, and may not fit into every budget (fresh fish can become expensive when out of season).
Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables may not be readily available where you live year-round, so access to a well-balanced Mediterranean style of eating may prove difficult for some people who don’t live in warmer climates.
Is the Mediterranean diet right for me?
The Mediterranean diet is an excellent choice if you love fresh foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. The diet is extremely flexible for many people, not relying on calorie counting or tracking of macronutrients.
The Mediterranean diet is especially appealing to those who do not want to give up their habitual glass of wine with dinner or cup of coffee in the morning.
However, the diet can pose a barrier to those on a tight budget: researchers found that the Mediterranean diet costs around $1.48 more per day (or $1.54 more per 2,000 calories) than less healthy diets.
Tips for thriving on the Mediterranean diet with diabetes
Choosing the Mediterranean diet if you live with diabetes can be an excellent choice not only for better blood sugar control but for weight loss and improved energy levels as well. Here are 3 tips to help you thrive on this eating plan!
Watch the alcohol
Part of what makes this eating plan so flexible is the ability to have an occasional glass of wine, but consuming alcohol while living with diabetes can be tricky.
Wine lowers blood sugar levels so make sure to talk with your doctor before adopting this eating plan and make a plan to prevent hypoglycemia when drinking wine, especially in the evenings before bed.
Additionally, if you’re eating this way to lose weight, the extra calories in wine can quickly add up, making dropping those LBs a little bit tougher. Moderation is key!
You’ll still need to count carbohydrates
Even though the diet doesn’t limit carbohydrates per se, you’ll still need to count carbohydrates and take all medications and/or insulin accordingly.
Loading up on legumes like lentils and chickpeas is an excellent way to get plant-powered protein and plenty of fiber, but they do pack a heavy carbohydrate punch.
Make sure to include lots of leafy greens and vegetables on your plate to help offset the high carbohydrate foods like fruits, grains, and beans.
Portion size matters
If you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll still need to be mindful of portion sizes.
Focus on protein and healthy fats, while limiting carbohydrates (dried dates have nearly 5 grams of carbohydrates each!), and focusing on the “occasional” glass of wine or healthy dessert can make all the difference.
Always work with your dietitian and/or doctor before making any dietary changes and be mindful that any changes to your diet will most likely result in a change to your medication and/or insulin dose as well.
Always work with your healthcare provider first to see if eating a Mediterranean diet is right for you, especially if you have diabetes.
The diet provides a lot of flexibility and is very approachable, without the need to count calories or track macronutrients.
If you enjoy an occasional glass of wine and your morning cup of coffee, this diet lets you enjoy those indulgences and more.
The diet has proven to improve heart health, lower inflammation, cause weight loss, and even prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes, among other benefits.
People who currently live with diabetes can enjoy increased insulin sensitivity, reduced insulin resistance, better blood sugars, and improved hba1c levels when they follow this diet well.