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It’s that time of year again. US News and World Report recently published its annual list of “best” diets. The main category for this is best overall diet, but there are other categories too.

There are categories for diabetes, heart disease, commercial, rapid weight loss and many others. This week we are going to look at the best overall category and the winner again this year is the Mediterranean diet.

The criteria that is used to rate these diets include things such as its effect on short term weight loss which is weight lost during the first 12 months of a diet. It also includes long-term weight loss defined as weight lost and maintained for two years or more. In addition, it’s effect on heart health and diabetes, ease of compliance, nutritional completeness and health risks are also all reviewed.

The Mediterranean diet which is more of an eating lifestyle related to the types of foods eaten in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea places an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil and grains. This approach has been found to reduce the risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, dementia, memory loss, depression and breast cancer. In addition, there have been links to healthier hearts, bone health and weight loss.

Beyond the foods that you eat, the Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on eating with friends and family, socializing over meals, mindful food choices as well as movement and exercise. These things combined lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Common themes among the top rated overall diets is that they encourage the use of minimally processed foods and shift the focus to foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils and whole grains and nuts and seeds. These are foods that we know offer powerful help to our body. They can help reduce inflammation and improve gut health.

There are a few resources that I like to use when I am looking for Mediterranean diet information. Oldways is a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization that advocates for incorporating healthful, sustainable eating habits through cultural food traditions and lifestyles. In 1993, in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health, published the Mediterranean diet pyramid. Since that time, they have continued to develop and promote the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet to consumers around the world.

Another resource is Med not Meds. This was created by a group of nutrition and healthcare professionals from NC State University and the North Carolina Division of Public Health. Their goal was to provide tips and tools to help people live a Mediterranean lifestyle as a tool to prevent or control chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. With the knowledge that following this eating plan can help reduce the need for medications the name of their group became Med Not Meds.

Both organizations suggest some simple steps to begin improving eating habits and eating more of the Mediterranean way. The first is to eat plenty of vegetables. In fact, we would like you to fill half your plate with them for lunch and supper.

Now, keep in mind, that veggies aren’t just limited to these two meals. In our culture we don’t often incorporate them into our morning routine, but in many Mediterranean cultures they are available at all meal periods.

Meat should be included in smaller portions and is really used as an accompaniment to the meal versus center of the plate. In this case we are primarily focusing on beef, pork and chicken.

Seafood on the other hand is more of a staple and should be consumed at a minimum two times per week. Choosing more plant-based proteins is also encouraged.

Dairy can be enjoyed in smaller amounts as well. Choosing Greek or plain yogurt is best. A variety of cheeses can also be enjoyed in small amounts. Going meatless at least one meal per week is also encouraged. These meals should have alternative protein sources from beans, whole grains and vegetables.

Olives and olive oil are both staples of this cuisine. Other healthy fats such as nuts and seeds as well as avocados are also encouraged. We all need a little bit of fat every day, but we do want to make sure we are focusing on the good ones.

Whole grains are also a staple; adding plenty of fiber to keep you feeling fuller longer. Traditional grains include bulgur, barley, farro and brown, black and red rice. Some of these grains can be cooked quickly, while others will require a little more time than our traditional white rice. When reading food labels, look for the word “whole” in the ingredient list.

Fresh fruit is often used as a dessert option and is consumed more frequently than cakes, pies and other baked goods. Those items are truly saved for special occasions. Try to get at least two cups of fruits per day and include berries often. Berries, especially blueberries, have been shown to be beneficial in preserving brain function.

The Mediterranean diet also allows for moderate intake of wine — one drink a day for women and two for men. It incorporates plenty of water too.

Again, because this is about a healthy lifestyle, being active and enjoying meals with others is a vital part of its success. Sharing a meal and having a conversation tends to lead us to more mindful choices and increases our satisfaction with our meal which in turn leads us to avoid overeating.

I always tell people that you don’t have to cook an exotic dish to follow this lifestyle. Filling your plate with veggies, whole grains and smaller meat portions while using healthy fats and having fruit instead of pie truly meets the intent of this eating pattern. Don’t over-think it!

Healthy living is a journey and eating well just one part of it. Look for options that work with your body, your health and your lifestyle. Until next time … live healthy!

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