Sick of the American Diet? Here Is a Healthier Alternative
Usually, when people buy groceries, they have a set path they follow every time they visit the store. If you have ever explored aisles you rarely walk down, you may have noticed food items that you never knew existed. People become so entrapped in their specific diets they forget they forgo the opportunity of exploring other foods; I am guilty of this as well.
The most common purchased grocery store items include dairy products, breakfast cereal, TV dinners, eggs, processed wheat bread, processed vegetable oils, meat, salt, beer, and soda – all staples of the traditional Western, American diet. Further, when these products are combined with fast food and regularly eating out, it is no wonder why the Western diet is frequently identified as the unhealthiest diet in the world.
Studies have related the Western diet to a deteriorated gut microbiome, increased occurrence of metabolic diseases , increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease , increased rates of obesity , and increased rates of chronic diseases and cancers .
Ready for a Change?
At a certain point, people have to examine their diets and ask themselves: “How is the food I’m eating making me feel? Do I approve of how my diet is contributing to my life-long health?”
Humans only have one life, and spending it eating these high-fat, ultra-processed foods can actively interfere with the overall productivity and quality of life. After at a certain point, individuals have the opportunity to decide whether to continue eating that diet or adopting a healthier alternative that will contribute to an overall healthier life.
The truth is these alternative diets are not a secret; they have existed mostly for hundreds to thousands of years as various cultures adopted certain predominant foods. For example, Asian cultures traditionally have diets high in rice, noodles, and soy, and Italian diets are typically high in bread and pasts. German diets have profound levels of meat and potatoes, and, of course, the traditional Western, American diet is high in processed carbohydrates, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats.
Perhaps one of the most profound and distinguished diets in the world is the Mediterranean diet, which is remarkably similar to the Prudent and Nordic diets. These three diets have been well-studied and investigated for their associated health benefits. In point of fact, a 1989 study examined the harmful effects of the Western diet and noted many of the adverse effects could be alleviated or extinguished if Americans would adopt any form of the Prudent diet .
In this article, we will examine the benefits and characteristics of the Mediterranean diet and how the Mediterranean diet varies from the Prudent and Nordic diets.
Where Does the Mediterranean Diet Come From?
There are twenty-one countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, France, Malta, and Egypt. However, when doctors and medical professionals refer to the Mediterranean diet, they are referring to the traditional diet in Crete and rural areas in Southern Greece, Italy, and France specifically. Unfortunately, due to globalization and the mixing and blurring of cultural lines, several of these regions have begun to adopt the harmful Western diet. Consequently, even visiting these areas and examining their diets can cause someone to adopt an unauthentic view of the traditional Mediterranean diet.
To illustrate, when this cross-cultural muddying began in the 1970s, the Greek waistline expanded drastically when the country experienced western-type modernization , and according to the World Health Organization, the Mediterranean diet is dead in these areas. As a consequence, in Cyprus, Greece, 43% of children under the age of nine are overweight or obese, and 40% of the entire country’s population is overweight .
So, if you visit Greece expecting to bask in the healthfulness of the traditional Mediterranean diet, it can be tough to obtain.
Characteristics of the Traditional Mediterranean Diet
When researchers condense the attributes of the traditional Mediterranean diet, there are certain hallmarks, such as the following:
- A diverse range of plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and beans
- An abundance of unrefined grains, such as whole-grain cereals and bread
- Olive oil as the primary source of fat
- Fish in moderate to high amounts; primary meat source
- Poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts
- Red meat consumed in small amounts
- Fruit as the typical dessert, with sweets containing honey, eaten a few times a week
- Yogurt, cheese, and dairy products consumed daily in low to moderate amounts
- Reliance on locally grown, fresh, sessional produce and minimally processed foods
Also, certain foods are completely withdrawn, such as the following:
- Foods with added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup: soda, candies, ice cream
- Refined, processed grains: white bread, pasta made with refined wheat
- Trans fats: margarine, hydrogenated oils, and various processed foods
- Refined oils: soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oils, vegetable oils
- Processed meats: hot dogs, etc.
- Processed foods: anything labeled as “low-fat,” “diet,” or foods that look like they were mass-produced
A three-day meal plan may look like this:
- Day 1:
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with fruit and oats
- Lunch: Whole-grain sandwich; vegetables
- Dinner: Salmon salad on fresh spinach, dressed in olive oil, lemon juice; fruit for dessert
- Day 2:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with raisins, sweetened with honey
- Lunch: Leftover salmon salad with the night before
- Dinner: Salad with raw vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta cheese
- Day 3:
- Breakfast: Omelet with greens, tomatoes, and onions; a piece of fruit
- Lunch: Whole-grain sandwich; raw vegetables; cheese
- Dinner: Grilled chicken; sautéed vegetables in olive oil; baked sweet potato with a honey drizzle; fruit for dessert
Snacks throughout the day could include raw nuts and seeds (unsalted is recommended), baby carrots, grapes, or apple slices with almond butter.
In my opinion, someone would have to be quite hard-pressed to convince me why this meal plan is undesirable.
Research Investigating the Benefits of the Traditional Mediterranean Diet
As mentioned, researchers have conducted many studies investigating the benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet. In this section, we will review some of those studies.
In a 2003 study, researchers conducted a population-based, prospective investigation involving 22,043 adults in Greece who completed an extensive, validated food questionnaire . The diets were then ranked from 0 to 9, with higher scores adhering closer to the traditional Mediterranean diet and lower scores being more similar to the Western diet. The researchers used statistical analysis techniques to assess the relationship between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and total mortality, as well as mortality due to coronary heart disease and death due to cancer .
The researchers found, compared to people with least traditional diets, people with the best diets were 33% less likely to die from heart disease and 24% less likely to die from any cause during the forty-four months of the study . The researchers also noted that benefits significantly depended on overall adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet, not adopting specific ingredients. For example, merely adding olive oil to a diet resembling a Western diet will not offer any benefits .
In a 2005 study, researchers examined the diets of 74,607 men and women ages 60 or older in nine European countries, including Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy . The researchers found the principles of the traditional Mediterranean diet were associated with increased survival and longevity. The benefits were consistent throughout European countries .
In a 2004 study, researchers investigated the effect of the traditional Mediterranean diet and its combined impact with being physically active, moderate alcohol use, and nonsmoking on all-cause and cause-specific mortality in 2,339 European elderly individuals in eleven countries . The researchers found merely adhering to the traditional Mediterranean diet was associated with a 23% reduction in the overall mortality rate. Interestingly, though, when combined with exercise, moderate alcohol use (occasional glass of red wine), and avoidance of tobacco, the death rate was reduced by more than 50% .
Although many studies have investigated the benefits of this diet regarding heart disease and overall mortality, studies have also found the traditional Mediterranean diet to be beneficial for arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
In a 2003 study, researchers investigated the efficacy of a Mediterranean diet versus a Western diet for suppression of disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who have has the disease for two years . There were two groups, a Mediterranean and Western group. Check-ups were performed throughout the 12-week study, and at the end of the study, researchers noted some effects.
The Mediterranean group had a decrease in disease activity, increase in vitality, and a reduction in “compared with one year earlier” disease scores. For the Western group, no noticeable change was recorded. The difference between the two groups became noticeable once in the last six weeks of the study. The researchers concluded, “The results indicate that patients with RA, by adjusting to a Mediterranean diet, did obtain a reduction in inflammatory activity, an increase in physical function, and improved vitality” .
In a 2011 study, researchers investigated the association between the traditional Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer’s disease . The study included 2,258 individuals in New York, and their diets were evaluated every 1.5 years during the four-year study. The researchers found those why faithfully followed a Mediterranean diet has a 40% reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease .
These are only a handful of studies that have linked the traditional Mediterranean diet to decreased mortality rates, increased life span, and reduced associations of various diseases.
Prudent and Nordic Diets
The Prudent diet is essentially a modified Mediterranean diet that does not include certain features such as the predominance of olive oil and the occasional glass of wine. The Nordic diet differs mainly only in the oil that is recommended: canola oil over olive oil. However, I would recommend olive oil above canola because most canola oil is genetically modified (nearly 90%  ), highly refined, and the canola industry sponsors many studies on its supposed health benefits.
Moreover, studies have linked canola oil to increased inflammation and oxidative stress  , decreased memory function , among increases of other risks. However, olive oil was associated with improved memory function, compared to canola oil , and has strong anti-inflammatory properties, comparable to ibuprofen  . However, because olive oil cannot be used for high-heat cooking, avocado oil is an excellent alternative for those scenarios.
Diet is a Great Start
The Mediterranean diet has several definite advantages: it is tremendously healthful, it is pleasant, and it is straightforward to adapt to one’s diet. However, a healthy diet alone is not sufficient to guarantee good health, as it is only a single pillar of lifestyle. Exercise plays a pivotal role, so moderate daily exercise or simply walking for thirty minutes a day will go a long way.
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