I am part of a Facebook Group called Mediterranean Diet for Beginners (I’ll place a link at the end of this post). It’s a very active group, and I absolutely love the idea of getting new people to embrace the health benefits of “Eating Like an Italian,” as it were. 

However, within the group, I’ve also encountered some confusion with regards to the vocabulary on how to describe this philosophy. While it’s technically called the Mediterranean “Diet,” the members of this particular group usually refer to it as the Mediterranean Way of Eating. (And FYI… they often abbreviate it as “WOE” in their discussions, in case you check it out.)

Well, it does make sense, as many people are justifiably reluctant to call it a “diet,” which I also agree sounds too clinical and impractical. As the saying goes, “Diets don’t work,” and it’s wrong-minded to think of food as just your “diet,” or your energy source.

OK, fair enough. 

BUT as I’ve often said on this blog, diet and even “way of eating” are both incomplete descriptions. I always call it the Mediterranean LIFESTYLE. Because, yes, it goes far beyond just the food and the “way of eating.” Maybe “way of living” would be more accurate, but then this requires more detail. Let’s dive into it a little deeper.

Mediterranean Way of Eating

I guess one mistake in this diet that bothers me about the discussion around the Mediterranean Way of Eating is that I frequently see people in the group bickering over this ingredient or that ingredient. As if there is some bible that describes everything precisely down to the molecule. “Greek yogurt is OK, but sour cream is not.” 

Or I’ve seen the “rule” that proclaims your diet should be 1/4 grains, 1/4 protein, 1/2 vegetables/fruit.

OK, but, this totally misses the point… 

As I’ve written before, it’s less about “what” to eat, and more about “why” a particular food or preparation or eating practice figures into an overall lifestyle. You simply can’t dissect the “what” out of the “why” and expect to get any meaningful LONG-TERM results. 

fresh sardines and anchovies

Further, it makes everything more laborious and difficult to follow, which can lead to frustration and eventually abandonment. You have to channel the spirit of our Mediterranean friends and make it part of your mindset, rather than a formula to follow. Yes, changing your mentality and retraining your habits requires a more conscious effort, but in the long run, it is far superior (and more sustainable) than strictly adhering to a list of ingredients, then always stressing over “Is THIS ok to substitute for Greek yogurt???”

*However, a caveat is also needed at this point. Whether we call it the Mediterranean Diet, the Mediterranean Way of Eating, or The Mediterranean Lifestyle, we should always be aware that we are referring to something that mostly existed in the past, like 100 years ago or so. These days, we see plenty of the Global Industrial (read: American) Diet in countries like Italy, Greece, and Spain. And they’re seeing an increasingly obese population as a result. Alas. 

Is Pasta Good For You?

The Mediterranean Lifestyle

It boils down to a larger philosophical approach rather than the details.

  • WHERE do you buy your food? At the large chain superstore or at the farmers’ market? And if it must be the supermarket, are you shopping in the center aisles (processed food) or the periphery (meat and produce)?
  • And what about WHEN? Do you buy the vegetables that are in season, or do you buy tomatoes in January? “WHEN” also relates to daily habits. Do you eat 2-3 normal-size meals a day, as recommended, or are you constantly snacking? 
  • Finally, WHY are you choosing a particular item or recipe or meal? Are you eating a “healthy” breakfast even if you’re not hungry? 

Notice what’s “missing” from this list: the WHAT. Because again, the “what” is less important than the other criteria

Mediterranean lifestyle shopping

Again, I admit it, my personal grocery shopping habits were considerably different when I lived in Italy compared to how I shop now in the U.S. Our food delivery systems simply are NOT set up to accommodate healthier choices. But the discussion is still valid from a philosophical standpoint if we are sincerely trying to imitate the Mediterranean “way of eating.”

In theory, if you really want to adopt the Mediterranean “lifestyle,” then the choices should come much more naturally. The so-called “rules” are extremely simple, as summarized by the author Michael Pollan. In his book, “In Defense of Food,” he says:

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

But perhaps even that doesn’t go far enough. To get the full picture, we should look at the Blue Zones where other, more subtle forces are in play. For example, “when” we should eat, “who” we should eat with, and of course the role of physical activity in our daily lives, as well as our social connections. 

It should also be highlighted that the frequency of eating plays a big role. The wrong-minded maxims of “Eat several smaller meals throughout the day,” and, “Breakfast is the most important meal,” are both bad advice with regards to your relationship with food.

Instead, consider time-restricted eating and occasional fasting. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is what our bodies are used to, not the constant abundance and grazing that goes along with modern food culture. If you’re a beginner and need some guidance, try Dr. Longo’s 5-Day Fasting Mimicking Diet for starters. It “mimics” fasting while you’re still eating (low-glycemic) foods. It’s easy to follow and sets you off on the right path. 

It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Way of Eating

In sum, the Mediterranean “way of eating” is really not much better than all of the other fad diets out there. It’s a set of rules that are difficult, if not impossible, to follow for the long-term. It’s only “information” instead of “knowledge,” which are obviously not the same thing…

It’s only when you incorporate the dietary practices into a fully evolved lifestyle do you gain the benefits equivalent to the health and longevity of populations in Italy, Greece, Spain, Southern France, and other locations in the namesake region. (But again, even in those places, the “lifestyle” began fading out two generations ago.)

Put another way… socialization, movement, and celebrating local seasonal foods are the recipe, not some prescription of precise ingredients. Channel the spirit of the Mediterranean, and don’t try to copy the menus. It’s the more challenging path, but very much worth it in the end.

Join the conversation on Social:

Facebook Group: Eat Like an Italian 

Facebook Group: Mediterranean Diet for Beginners

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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