What does a Mediterranean diet have to do with prediabetes and diabetes?
Though commonly thought of as “a blood sugar problem,” both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes are metabolic disorders that affect the health of the blood vessels, heart, liver and more. In addition to helping with blood sugar control, a Mediterranean-style diet offers benefits to these parts of the body and others.
What is a Mediterranean Diet?
People who live in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea have traditionally eaten health-promoting diets. We often refer to the Mediterranean diet, but there really is no one traditional diet in this region because the typical foods varied from country to country. That’s why I frequently say a Mediterranean-style diet. Even though the specific foods are different, the basics are the same: mostly whole and minimally-processed foods, and lots of vegetables; legumes like chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils; fruits; and whole grains. Diets in the Mediterranean region are also rich in nuts, olive oil and fish. Meals are seasoned with abundant herbs and spices, which actually contain the same types of health-boosting phytonutrients that are present in fruits and vegetables. Dinner might include a glass of wine, but not several. Fruit is a more common dessert than baked goods. In general, the diet is not low in fat, but it’s fairly low in saturated fats and rich in unsaturated fats. Meals are eaten leisurely, which may help prevent overeating.
A Mediterranean Diet for Diabetes and Prediabetes
Research has linked Mediterranean-style diets to lower risks of developing type 2 diabetes. A large meta-analysis of more than 100,000 people from around the world found that those individuals whose diets most closely resembled a Mediterranean style were 23% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. A large study in Spain (called the PREDIMED study) found that after four years, those participants assigned to follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern were 52% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those assigned to a low fat diet. This is a pretty impressive testimonial for the power of healthful eating!
Among people with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes, a Mediterranean-style weight loss diet resulted in better blood sugar levels, more pounds lost, and better cardiovascular risk factors compared to a low fat diet. The Mediterranean-style diet in this study included more fat from olive oil and nuts, so the amount of carbohydrate was slightly less – about 44% of total calories, so certainly not low carb, but lower than most low fat diets.
Additionally, people who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern have less incidence of metabolic syndrome, reduced risks of heart attacks, stroke and even dementia – all problems that hold increased risks for people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
8 Ways to Follow a Mediterranean Diet
- Focus on what to eat, not what to avoid. Not only is it no fun to follow of a list of foods to avoid, it’s also not very helpful. I’ve known too many people to avoid whatever foods they think are unhealthful, but still lack a nutritious diet. Simply not eating sweets or fast food doesn’t mean you’re consuming adequate nutrition. Instead make it your mission to consume the delicious foods we know to boost health. So what should you eat? Fill up on these:
- Eat fruits and vegetables with most meals and snacks.
- Enjoy beans, lentils and other legumes a few times each week.
- Sit down to salads often.
- Try fish a couple times each week.
- Slow down. It’s more healthful, more enjoyable and more “Mediterranean” to eat in a leisurely way. It’s very American, and in my view unpleasant, to grab food between two other events. Life is much more enjoyable when we make eating an event. And while we’re slowing down and focusing on the food, let’s enjoy the company of others too as much as we can. Making eating an event in itself is 1 of 8 ways to follow a Mediterranean Diet.
- If you drink, drink with meals. It’s common to drink wine in countries near the Mediterranean Sea. However, drinking a few cocktails before dinner is not a regular part of the eating pattern.
- Rethink your meat. Instead of serving up a large portion of steak or chicken, shrink the meat and pile on the vegetables and whole grains. Or mix animal and vegetables proteins.
- Finish your meal sweetly. Top of your dinner or lunch or both with a juicy piece of fruit or even a small serving of dried fruits. Frequently, when I’ve traveled abroad, our hosts served a small tray of fresh and dried fruits and a few nuts to wrap up a meal.
- Swap fats. Replace butter and other solid fats like coconut oil with liquid oils rich in unsaturated fats. Olive oil is the most common oil in many regions of the Mediterranean. Other liquid oils are also suitable. Additional sources of healthful fats include nuts, seeds, olives and avocados.
- Spice it up. Build flavor naturally with herbs and spices. Enjoy both fresh and dried. Here’s my guide on how to use herbs and spices.
- Turn it into a habit. Everyday work toward making some improvements – big or small – to your eating pattern. Do this with a sense of curiosity, not with a sense of drudgery or deprivation. Ask yourself, what you can do differently. What do you like? What might you like better? How might it be easier to prepare a similar healthful meal next time. Habits come with a productive mindset. Here are 5 Steps to Build Healthy Habits.
And finally, Oldways has a wonderful introduction to a Mediterranean-style eating pattern with links to recipes and resources, including a Mediterranean diet food list.
What are some of your favorite ways to eat like a Mediterranean?
Interstingly, the 3 most popular recipes on my site have origins from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Check them out.