Should I eat a Mediterranean Diet? Mediterranean Diet For Healthy Blood Sugar

Why is it that folks who live in Mediterranean countries just seem to be, well, happier than the rest of us?  Could it be their diet?! Maybe so.  A...

Why is it that folks who live in Mediterranean countries just seem to be, well, happier than the rest of us? 

Could it be their diet?! Maybe so. 

Ah, the Mediterranean. The blue sky. The balmy weather. The delicious food. 

Let’s face it, when we think of good food and good times, we often think of a banquet table filled to the brim with the kinds of foods that are consumed daily by folks from the Mediterranean. Fish, red wine, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, rice, and pasta are abundant in countries like Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy

And although there is no one-size-fits-all way of eating in this region, there are many similarities—one of which is healthier blood glucose levels in people who eat this way.

So let’s look a little closer at the Mediterranean diet, and see if it might be a good fit for you.

What is the Mediterranean Diet? 

The Mediterranean diet is a centuries-old eating pattern that is based on the most popular foods in Mediterranean countries—olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. In this style of eating, red meat is rarely consumed, olive oil replaces butter, and salt is replaced with spices and herbs. Food is lightly cooked and very little goes into preparation. Think of pulling sun-ripened fruits off the vine and popping them into your mouth, and you get the picture.

The best thing about the Mediterranean diet is it helps you maintain healthy blood glucose levels. In fact, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends the Mediterranean diet for its benefits in glycemic control and decreasing cardiovascular risk factors, and as a viable alternative to a low-fat, high-carbohyate nutrition plan.

Can the Mediterranean diet really assist in balancing my blood sugar? 

The evidence up to this point suggests that following a lower carb, Mediterranean-style diet really can help manage your blood sugar. The Mediterranean diet has been found to have a positive impact on a variety of chronic diseases, in addition to its ability to promote weight loss and reduce carb intake. 

But its most notable benefit is reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Put simply, the Mediterranean diet is considered a "heart-healthy" diet. 

A Mediterranean diet protects the heart by decreasing and managing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, according to some studies, eating an olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet for 1.5 years or longer can actually increase blood flow in your heart even more than eating a typical low-fat diet. This can help to reduce the progression of atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup, in the artery walls. And the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities of the diet can reduce the risk of a heart attack, some studies say by up to 30%.

So how do I follow a Mediterranean diet?

Don’t worry, you don’t need to develop a passion for soccer (oops I meant football) to eat like a Mediterranean. All you really need to do is stick to the rule of less is more. The basics of the Mediterranean diet essentially entail eating in the manner in which people in the Mediterranean have traditionally eaten for centuries, and that is simple, fresh whole foods.

For many, the term "diet" evokes images of strict rules to follow, such as calorie counting and excluding certain foods. Thankfully, a Mediterranean-style diet doesn’t require that at all. A classic Mediterranean diet follows the simple idea that if you eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and some healthy fats and fish you’ll make your heart and blood glucose happy.

So what, exactly, do I eat on a Mediterranean diet?

Here are a few guidelines for eating the Mediterranean way:

  • Consume lots of leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and legumes on a daily basis.
  • Moderately consume lean proteins such as fish, chicken, and eggs each week.
  • Regularly use extra virgin olive oil instead of margarine or butter.
  • Avoid red meat and sweets as much as possible. Red meat is eaten less frequently and in smaller quantities.
  • Avoid refined foods, sugar, and products with an ingredient list that you don't understand.

What do I eliminate on a Mediterranean diet?

Stay away from the following foods—which tend to spike the blood sugar:

  • Trans fats, which are found in margarine and other processed foods.
  • Refined grains, such as white bread, white pasta, and pizza dough made with white flour.
  • Pastries, drinks, and sweets with added sugars. 
  • Processed meats like deli meats or hot dogs.
  • Canned goods like canned fruits and veggies.

Here’s some additional guidelines for balancing your blood sugar on the Mediterranean diet:

If you're new to the Mediterranean diet, start with these basic substitutions:

  • Purchase some high-quality extra virgin olive oil and use it as your primary cooking oil for the first week (instead of butter, lard, or other oils).
  • Add 1 or 2 fish or seafood-based meals, and/or 1 or 2 meatless meals to next week's menu. 
  • Get some healthy snacks, such as hummus and vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, for in between meals.
  • Replace dessert with fresh fruit, or a handful of dried fruit such as apricots, figs, or cherries. Pair them with a small piece of traditionally manufactured cheese such as feta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano and you might just find yourself shouting abbondanza!
  • Avoid drinking your calories. This means replacing calorie-dense beverages with one glass of red wine every now and again, and lots of water.
  • Eliminate canned, highly processed, and fast foods from your diet. Avoiding this type of food is one of the more difficult transitions for many of us in America, and it may take some time. To begin, consider substituting one fast food meal a week for a handmade Mediterranean-style dinner.
  • Enjoy dairy and eggs in moderation. Dairy and eggs are a good source of protein and have several health benefits, but we’re not talking about slathering everything in processed cheese. Instead, choose high quality dairy products like low-fat Greek yogurt or feta cheese. You can even experiment with using low-fat Tzatziki sauce instead of mayonnaise on a sandwich or as a dip.

Is there anything else I should watch out for?

Even though the Mediterranean diet is a healthy way to balance your blood sugar, you'll still need to watch your carb intake. Here are some general pointers to bear in mind as you transition.

1. Keep an eye on the legumes

Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are all high in minerals and fiber, but they're also carbs, which will alter your blood sugar levels. That doesn't mean you should avoid them altogether, but you should be conscious of the number of carbs they add to your meal, particularly if you're on insulin.

2. Remember that portion size is still important

Managing your glucose levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol requires weight management as well. As a result, portion control is essential, even if you're consuming healthy foods. Overeating, even nutritious products like olive oil, whole grains, and legumes, can result in excess calories. And carbohydrate-heavy foods like whole-grain pasta, potatoes, and brown rice can pack on the pounds. Fortunately, there are many different versions of the Mediterranean diet, and a number of them limit or eliminate high-carb items in favor of healthier alternatives. So find a version that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables and you should be well on your way.

3. Discuss alcohol with your doctor

The Mediterranean diet allows moderate consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine. That doesn't imply it's the best option for you or your health. Consult with your doctor about alcohol and how it may mix with any medication you may be taking.

Start slow and build

Long-term, sustainable dietary adjustments is the goal of the Mediterranean diet. A diet rich in natural foods, such as plenty of veggies, whole grains, and nutritious fats, should be your aim. But lasting change takes time. So start incorporating the Mediterranean diet into your daily routine bit by bit, and you should notice significant improvements in balancing your blood sugar and your overall health.