The Mediterranean Diet
The evidence supporting the beneficial health effects of the Mediterranean diet seems to just keep growing. Every day it seems like there is at least one new article or study that covers this diet and its apparent health benefits. Perhaps, not surprisingly, two more studies were recently published that shed some light on a few more of the lesser known benefits of this diet. These two studies have been added to a long history of promising evidence in support of this diet, which will be discussed later. In fact, the U.S. News and World Report recently awarded this diet as the Best Diet of 2018.
But, is this diet truly worth all the hype, or is it yet another health fad? Can this diet help support a healthy NeruEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response? Can it help prevent Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)?
Let’s find out.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
This diet isn’t actually a “diet” for much of the world. It is simply the native diet of the Mediterranean countries. It is very similar to the diets that many of our recent ancestors used to eat. This seemingly foreign diet was only recently overshadowed by the industrial revolution, which promoted fast, easy meals over quality and nutritive values.
Unlike most other diets, the Mediterranean diet is loosely structured, perhaps this is one of several causes for its rising popularity. All in all, it is a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts whole grains, lean animal protein, and of course olive oil. It is also a diet which is low in red meats and saturated fats in general. Processed foods and refined sugars are also to be avoided in this diet.
This diet is far from the only diet that recommends limiting processed foods. In fact, most, if not all modern science strongly suggests processed foods are detrimental to the body. Avoiding processed foods is crucial to keeping a balanced NEM stress response and avoiding chronic stress. This is largely due to the stress the body endures when digesting these unnatural foods.
This diet’s rise to fame is, in some ways, a product of the slow food movement; a movement which encourages home cooking, family meals, and of course avoiding fast food. In this Mediterranean diet, sitting down for family, and group meals, in general, are strongly encouraged. This type of social eating not only encourages social activity, but also slows down your eating, giving you more time to chew your food, and allows for easier digestion, as words are exchanged in between bites.
Perhaps one of the biggest causes for its popularity, the Mediterranean diet allows for alcohol in moderation. How many diets let you do that? Traditionally, consumption is limited to wine with meals, but who can’t live with that?
Surprisingly, this seemingly cutting-edge diet isn’t actually that cutting edge. It is based on the traditional diets of the Mediterranean, namely Italy and Spain. This modern craze is really just the way that many of our grand, and great-grandparents used to eat before the industrial revolution, which caused an abundance of processed, easy to access food.
Why Is the Diet So Good?
You have likely heard about the amazing benefits that appear to come from this diet in an article or from a study. Among the most popular of these benefits are; reduced risk for diabetes, kidney disease, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, only to name a few. It also appears that this fast spreading diet can support a healthy NEM system for several reasons which we will be sure to cover later.
Many of the studies conducted on the diet have risen from observational studies, and do not quite give us a whole picture of how the diet directly affects the body. But due to its prominent use of mostly plant-based foods, it is not too surprising that many benefits would arise from this diet. Many of the foods in this diet contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties; both of these factors have long been known to be important for a healthy diet.
Though the evidence supporting the diet itself is largely observational, many facets that it incorporates have been proven with stronger evidence. For example, the prominent use of raw whole foods, many of which have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and regenerative properties.
What Does the Research Say?
Some research even suggests that a diet rich in Mediterranean cuisine may help alleviate acid reflux, reduce cholesterol and perhaps most importantly extend lifespan. Although the diet is not actually low in fat, it has been proven to help people lose weight, even if they do not keep track of calories. That is quite exciting if you ask me!
According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers found that elders who closely follow the Mediterranean diet were least likely to become frail. This study took place over a 4 year period, and many elderly people followed the loose structure of this diet.
The Journal of Urology published a study in which men who followed a diet rich in fish and olive oil, and low in juice, seemed to reduce their risk for aggressive prostate cancer. The Mediterranean diet is rich in olive oil and fish, meaning that this diet would likely have very similar effects.
How Does This Diet Impact the NEM System?
What is the NEM system?
The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system is a way of seeing the finely balanced systems of the body, and how they function together. The NEM system is a visual lens through which to see functions in the body that would otherwise be invisible. The NEM is made up of six circuits being inflammation, metabolic, detoxification, hormonal, cardionomic, and neuroaffect. In a healthy body, we would expect to see the six circuits working in balanced unison to create the ideal environment for a healthy life.
However, when one or more of these systems begin to function improperly, the body will experience negative effects. One major effect of an unbalanced NEM system is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). The major cause of AFS is stress Stress can be brought to the body by a variety of means. Two of the biggest cause of stress may be lack of exercise and poor diet.
The Mediterranean lifestyle and the NEM system
Due to the stress brought on by the standard Western diet from various aspects, we should look to healthier, whole food based approaches to diet. The Mediterranean diet appears to support a healthy NEM system. Not only is this diet closely related to the diets of our ancestors, it also supports social eating which is a concept most of us have lost touch with.
A diet rich in whole foods allows for easier digestion and a more nutrient-dense meal. Both of these factors reduce the number of digestive actions needed to be taken by the body. Reducing these actions, in the long term, may allow the body to get more energy. This is essential to maintaining the long-term health of the human body.
On the other hand, processed foods can cause chemical imbalances in the body. For example, many processed foods are high in sugar; too much sugar at once causes a large increase in blood sugar levels. If this occurs too many times, it can lead to diseases like diabetes, as well as stress and an imbalance in the metabolic circuit of the NEM stress response. Not only are processed foods high in sugar, but often low in essential vitamins and minerals. Your body has to work harder to digest processed foods, and in the end, receives less for its hard work. Diets such as the Mediterranean are beneficial for long-term health and a balanced NEM system. One of the biggest reasons is that your body has to work less, and gets more in turn.
There are many other studies on the diet which shows its promise as a healthy alternative to the standard western diet. Many of the reasons for the healing benefits of the diet will become more apparent when you learn a bit more about how to practice it.
How to Practice This Fast Growing Diet
9 daily servings of fresh fruits and veggies.
If you want to begin incorporating the Mediterranean diet into your life, you can start by adding fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. Try to aim for nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. And remember olive oil and wine do not count as servings, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
As part of achieving those nine servings a day, start by including a few cups of leafy greens every week then add some more color like red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables that will increase the phytonutrients and other important vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables provide plenty of vitamins and minerals to help your body and adrenals heal.
If you do not want to follow the Mediterranean meal plan so strictly, even just starting with this step has the potential to improve your health. While fresh fruit and vegetables are great, keep in mind that fruit in the morning may spike your blood sugar leading to reactive hypoglycemia. Also, raw vegetables take more energy to process, and may not be recommended in someone with advanced adrenal fatigue.
Limit healthy fats.
Legumes and nuts are important components of the diet. Mix them in with cereals or salads, or spread almond or peanut butter on your whole grain bread. Raw or roasted nuts and legumes make a great addition to a healthy diet. However, remember nuts are high in calories and fat, so limit consumption to half a cup a day.
Use a similar approach to limit the consumption of healthy fats in general. Of course, for most people, olive oil makes a healthy alternative to margarine or butter. However, you have to maintain a healthy level of use as healthier doesn’t mean all-you-can-eat. Another example of a healthy fat that should not be over-eaten would be avocado. We know it may be healthy, but we often forget to consume in moderation.
In adrenal fatigue, healthy fats may be beneficial as they provide long-lasting energy to your body.
If consuming animal protein is part of your diet, opt for lean options. Go for chicken and fish over heavier red meats like beef, or pork. Additionally, eggs, cheese, and yogurt are a typical part of this renowned diet.
Bread and pasta.
Unlike many modern diets, the Mediterranean diet does allow bread and pasta. However, it is important to choose whole grain and whole wheat options rather than white, or refined grains. Choosing whole grain provides more fiber and nutrients, and can cause you to feel full faster. Much like healthy fats, limit consumption of bread and pasta.
The main concept of the Mediterranean cuisine is consuming more whole foods. Avoid processed foods such as those that come in bags and boxes. Though they may be widely available at the grocery store, they are largely lacking in nutrition overall. Shop for foods as close to their natural form as possible. Every step of processing foods for shelf stability removes essential nutrients and vitamins that can only be found in the whole food form.
Though there is no strict schedule associated with the diet, social eating is greatly encouraged. When possible, at least once a day sit down with friends or family for a full meal. This is one of the biggest concepts that has been lost in the eating habits of modern society. In the constant need to get from one place to the other, we forget the most basic and fundamental human enjoyments such as sitting down for a delicious meal with our friends and family.
Though this diet is quickly spreading in popularity, it is largely about taking time to enjoy the simple things, which involves slowing down. Socializing is a basic human need that we often ignore. Socializing may limit stress by helping us not feel so alone in the world, and having someone to share our life with. Limiting stress as you likely know, is essential to avoiding AFS.
Though no diet is right for everyone, it is likely that at least there are aspects of the Mediterranean diet we should all consider adding to our lives.
© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Is the Mediterranean diet worth the hype?
Actually, the Mediterranean diet appears to have many health benefits. As you have likely long suspected it appears that diets that are closer to what many of our ancestors ate may actually have been better. At least in a few key ways.