Start the Mediterranean Diet

Starting a new diet is always more daunting than maintaining a routine of healthy eating. The Good News: You can Start the Mediterranean Diet in Six Easy Steps. Let’s see how…

The secret is to take it slow and easy, just one “bite” at a time, as it were. One of the surest ways to undermine our goals is to be too ambitious at the outset. Keep an eye on the long term but focus on one day at a time. Don’t try to accomplish it all in the first week. Make incremental changes and let the small wins along the way inspire you to continue. 

If on New Year’s Day I resolve to give up wine, go vegan, join a gym, start meditating, and grow my own organic garden, well, I think we all know how that goes.Too many goals in too short of a time will only frustrate us. Then we inevitably fail, causing us to quit on the whole notion of getting healthy, and grab a sleeve of oreos, a quart of milk, and binge-watch the latest Netflix show. 

Instead, consider a very doable, one-step-at-a-time approach.  As far as “how long” to spend on each step, again, it’s a matter of making it reasonable to achieve, which can be variable. Three days for each step? That’s probably too quick. One month? No, we can do better than that. As a guideline, 7-10 days per step seems reasonable, but it’s more important to listen to your body and do what feels natural. 

OK, here we go…

STEP ONE: Just cut out all of the junk. 

For this first step, eat whatever you’d like EXCEPT for the things that we all know are pure junk. Cookies, candy, chips, deep-fried foods, cured meats, drive-through fast food, soft drinks, etc.

If you drink a lot of alcohol on a daily basis, then eliminate that for this first step, too. (Sorry. But don’t worry, you can add moderate amounts back into your routine later once you’ve cleaned up the rest of your diet.) 

Why this works: Calorie-dense, nutritionally poor foods induce cravings and perpetuate the cycle of bad eating habits. 

STEP TWO: Eat a little less overall.

Keep up the good work from step one, but now also try to reduce your total calories. Nothing extreme. Again, eat what you’d like (other than the aforementioned “junk”), but reduce portion size and limit between meal snacks. I’m not suggesting that you cut your food intake in half, but maybe by 15-20%.

Counting calories doesn’t really make practical sense for a long-term lifestyle plan. That said, it can be informative in the very beginning, just to see where you are starting from to help you create the good habits that will later be unconscious.  

Refer to this calculator to see what YOUR body needs everyday: Mayo Clinic Calorie Calculator

The Japanese saying of “Hara Hachi Bu,” which roughly means “Leave the table when you’re 80% full.” Not sure if Italians have this exact saying, but… it certainly makes sense.

Why this works: Conventional wisdom advocates “calories expended should exceed calories taken in” in order to produce weight loss. While there is some line of truth to that, it’s hardly just that simple. For example, 160 kcal of almonds does NOT equal 160 kcal of Skittles. The effect on your glycemic index is considerably different. 

STEP THREE: Narrow your “food window.” 

Studies show that time-restricted eating (or intermittent fasting) produces weight-loss, even when the total caloric intake remains the same. Pick a schedule that can work for you, but as a default, consider limiting all of your food consumption between 9 am and 7 pm. 

In other words, before 9 in the morning and after 7 at night, ONLY consume non-caloric liquids, such as water, zero-calorie flavored sparkling water, coffee, or tea. A wedge of lemon is ok. No cream or sugar. And definitely no diet soft drinks, which in many ways are worse than their full-sugar variations.  

As your body gets used to this schedule, try to narrow the window even a bit more. 

Why this works: Seems to improve glucose tolerance, protects from hepatosteatosis, increases metabolic flexibility, reduces atherogenic lipids and blood pressure, and improves gut function.

STEP FOUR: Add a little movement

Yes, we’re talking about diet here, but remember that this is more accurately called “the Mediterranean lifestyle.” Part of that way of life is natural movement throughout the day. Not running marathons or two-hour gym routines, but just walking, yard work, and playing with children. 

So just add walking or some other natural movement to your daily routine. 20-30 minutes after lunch, or after dinner, or both, if you’re up to it.

Why this works: Exercise increases your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate – the number of calories required to keep your body functioning at rest.) That means, if you raise your BMR, you’ll be burning more calories while resting, even while sleeping, than you had before starting an exercise routine. 

STEP FIVE: Reduce animal protein

You don’t have to become a vegetarian, but reduce meats that are high in saturated fats like hamburgers and pork chops. Instead, choose high-quality proteins such as wild-caught fish, free-range organic chicken, and grass fed beef. 

In this step, meat or fish should only appear on your plate 3-4 times a week. Check your portion size, too, and keep it at around five ounces or less, the size of a deck of cards. 

Why this works: Research shows that people who eat red meat are at an increased risk of death from heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Processed meats also increase the risk of death from these diseases. And what you don’t eat can also harm your health. Diets low in nuts, seeds, seafood, fruits and vegetables also increase the risk of death.

STEP SIX: Replace “bad” carbs with good carbs

The old thinking was carbs are good, but fats are bad. Then later they told us, we need more protein and we should cut out the carbs. Now the overwhelming consensus is that there are good fats and bad fats; good proteins and bad proteins; good carbs and bad carbs. We would all like easier advice to follow, but the truth is that we have to put some thought into our food choices. At least until it’s so ingrained that it becomes a natural act. 

So which bad carbs should we eliminate? First and foremost, refined sugars and highly-processed wheats. You might say, “We already got rid of those things in step one!” Well, yes and no. We got rid of the obvious ones like candy bars and glazed donuts. But refined sugar and processed grains hide everywhere. High-fructose corn syrup is a particularly sneaky enemy, and finds its way into unexpected places. 

Why this works: Refined carbs increase blood triglycerides, blood sugar levels and cause insulin resistance. All of these are major risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, “good carbs” have a much more buffered effect on these blood values, and also contain important vitamins and nutrients not found in “bad” carbs. 

Staring the Mediterranean Diet – Summary

There has been a flood of exciting discoveries in recent years on the topic of healthy eating. Unfortunately, with all of that good science comes an exponential amount of exploitational information that takes a sensational headline and tries to spin it into an appealing marketing campaign to sell something completely disconnected from the original research. 

There’s not much money to be made in the time-tested, nonna-approved wisdom of the ages. You can call it the Mediterranean Diet, Blue Zones, or your great-grandmother’s kitchen… the advice is the same: 

Eat real food, get plenty of vegetables, drink only water or wine with your meal, and if you can’t pronounce its list of ingredients, you shouldn’t eat it.

— Your nonna
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