Go Mediterranean and Help Your Diabetes

Right about now, folks in Massachusetts would welcome a trip to a sunny, warm Mediterranean country. We’ve had so much gloomy, wet, raw weather this spring that a little sunshine — heck, even a day of sunshine — would do much to lift our spirits. Speaking of the Mediterranean, May is Mediterranean Month! And what better way to get ready for warmer weather (and help your diabetes at the same time) than to embrace the Mediterranean way of eating.

Back in 2008, I wrote about the Mediterranean “diet,”[1] as it’s usually called. If you’re not familiar with this way of eating, here are some basics:

It’s heart-healthy. It’s not really fair to call the Mediterranean diet a “diet.” The word “diet” often implies something strict or stringent, or something that you follow for a short while, then “go off.” Really, this plan is a way of eating that primarily focuses on promoting heart health. And the research is there to back it up: The Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and the risk of overall and cardiac-related deaths, while also reducing the risk of and deaths from certain types of cancer. This way of eating may even lower the risk for Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases, too.

It’s based on good-for-you foods. No big surprise here, but the basis of this eating plan is a lot of fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and herbs. In other words, it’s very much a plant-based way of eating. Fish and other seafood are the main protein sources, but poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt are also OK. Red meat and sweets are not completely off-limits, but they should be eaten less often and in smaller amounts.

It’s pretty low in sodium. At least, the intent is that you stay away from the salt shaker, along with highly processed foods. Cooking with tasty herbs and spices is encouraged. And if you need a snack, skip the chips and grab a handful of nuts and yogurt instead.

Wine is OK! Studies have shown that alcohol (in moderation) may lower the risk of heart disease. Moderation is the key word here, and it’s mostly red wine that’s encouraged. This means no more than two glasses (10 ounces total) of wine per day for men, and no more than one glass (5 ounces total) of wine per day for women. Obviously, if you don’t drink or shouldn’t drink alcohol for whatever reason, it’s not intended for you to start. But enjoying a glass of wine has been shown to have both physiological and psychological benefits!

It can help you shed the pounds…and keep them off. In a two-year study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2008, subjects following the Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those following a low-fat diet (but not as much weight as those on a low-carb diet). And researchers studying 206 participants living in Spain over 10 years found that a high intake of fruits and vegetables was linked with a reduced chance of long-term weight gain and obesity. This way of eating isn’t a “fad” diet geared towards weight loss, so if your goal is to lose weight, you still need to watch portions and calories.

What About Diabetes?
If you’re thinking, “This all sounds great but I have diabetes. Can I really eat this way and manage my diabetes at the same time?” The answer is: Yes!

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2009 looked at 215 overweight people with Type 2 diabetes not on medicine. They were told to follow either a low-fat diet (no more than 30% of calories from fat) or a Mediterranean diet, which consisted of 50% of calories from carbohydrate and no less than 30% of calories from fat.

After four years, only 44% of the folks on the Mediterranean diet needed to start diabetes medicine compared to 70% of the people on the low-fat diet. Blood glucose control was better in the Mediterranean diet group, along with certain markers for heart disease. Interestingly, both groups lost about the same amount of weight.

Getting Started
It’s easier than you may think to “go Mediterranean.” Here are some tips to get you started: