By: Lacey Dunn
50+ years of research provides remarkable evidence demonstrating the magical benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Not only does it contribute to reducing the risk for a variety of chronic diseases, but it can help in lengthening your lifespan. Along with the DASH Diet, the Dietary Guidelines of Americans recommends this pattern of eating to promote overall health and prevent diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Cancer. The research is compelling and provides strong evidence on the beneficial health outcomes, but can the Mediterranean diet also be utilized and be beneficial to those with physique and performance goals? By understanding the key components of the diet and its effects on our bodies, we can utilize this well known, yet often undermined diet to enhance and strengthen our bodies from the inside out.
The Mediterranean diet is essentially an eating pattern based on the traditional foods and eating patterns of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It focuses on a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, low-fat dairy, n-3 fatty acid-rich foods, with a moderate wine intake. Unlike the typical Western diet filled with processed and refined carbohydrates, meats, and saturated fats, it focuses more on whole, nutrient dense options. By increasing the nutrient dense foods in the diet, it helps to provide the body with the tools that it needs for optimal health, growth, and development. The Mediterranean diet also has a substantial effect on markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, which in excess can contribute to chronic diseases and increased mortality. In 2011, Nutrition Journal concluded that the Mediterranean dietary pattern was associated with significant reductions in a variety of health risk factors, oxidative stress, and inflammation modification, which when elevated can spell trouble for any fitness or physique goal. By reducing your risk for chronic disease and chronic inflammation, you can set yourself up for a life-long commitment to the gym.
The muscle building power of the Mediterranean diet lies in its quality of nutrients and their ability to fuel your body for growth and recovery. Despite what the supplement industry may say, protein is not the only nutrient needed for making those muscles grow, and more is not better. Sufficient vitamins and minerals in the diet are necessary in order to reach any goal, and no matter how much protein is in your diet, without these nutrients, your body will not be able to be its best internally or externally. A diet of 1.5-2.5g/kg protein is sufficient for strength training athletes hoping to gain lean body mass or reduce lean body mass losses in a diet phase. Though the Mediterranean diet limits red meats, which can be good sources of iron and protein, other proteins such as fish/seafood, beans, poultry, dairy, eggs, and other plant based sources supply plenty of necessary amino acids for the body while providing key vitamins and minerals. Without a healthy and fully-functioning body, reaching your performance goals or achieving that six pack won’t be easy and the body will do all it can to fight you. The Mediterranean diet is jam packed with nutrients, and if followed can help to ensure that your body is in prime condition to reach any goal you set. It is always important to make sure to pay attention to not only the quality, but the quantity of food in your diet, making sure to consume these healthful foods within your caloric needs.
The consumption of the right types and amounts of carbohydrates and fats in the diet on top of a proper protein intake is essential for optimal performance in the gym and obtaining your goal physique. The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole over refined grains, which not only contribute to healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, but help in regulating proper hormone levels. Whole grains potentially contribute to weight loss due to their effects on satiety and improving gut microbiota, which if thrown off can cause detrimental effects on your overall health. They also have substantial benefits on insulin sensitivity, keeping blood glucose stable and preventing rapid spikes and falls that may trigger hunger and hypoglycemic conditions mid-workout. A trial of 215 adults with newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetes in Diabetes Care found that the Mediterranean-style eating pattern resulted in a greater reduction of HbA1c levels, higher rates of diabetes remission, and delayed need for medication, providing evidence that choosing this style of eating may be advantageous to individuals with blood sugar issues or individuals who struggle with mid-workout crashes. Making sure to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian if you ever experience symptoms of hypoglycemia is vital.
One of the key components of the Mediterranean diet includes a focus on healthy monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Contrary to the popular saying that “fat makes you fat”, this is far from reality and fats are an essential part to having a healthy, well-functioning body. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which include n-3 and n-6 fatty acids, participate in a variety of metabolic functions including inflammation modulation, platelet aggregation, cell growth, smooth muscle contraction, and immunity. They aid in reducing inflammation, normalizing heart rate, and play roles in vasodilation, which can be beneficial for not only your gym performance but your muscle recovery. Fish Oils, a supplemented form of n-3 fatty acids, remain one of the top beneficial supplements for anyone who cares about both their overall health and fitness goals. Looking at monounsaturated fatty acids, their consumption has been linked to reducing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and increasing HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) when incorporated into the diet. Diets higher in monounsaturated fatty acids (12% of calories or less vs 12% of more) have also been linked to lower fat mass and blood pressure, providing evidence that the Mediterranean diet may be a good choice for those in a fat loss or lean bulking stage. The consumption of both of these fatty acids provide significant benefits on your overall health, weight loss, and performance and can be a key piece of the puzzle to your goal’s game plan. Regardless if one wants to follow the Mediterranean diet or not, incorporating foods such as fish, almonds, walnuts, avocado, and olive oil into your diet while aiming for 500mg of EPA/DHA a day can help in reducing your risk for chronic diseases and gives your body valuable nutrients in order to fuel your metabolic fire.
Because the Mediterranean diet focuses on a variety of nutrient dense foods, it’s benefits on overall health can not be contributed to any one component but the consumption of all of its components. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that there is no dietary pattern that is considered to be more efficacious than another diet approach on weight loss, however, some diets, including the Mediterranean diet, have positive effects on cardio-metabolic outcomes and health measures. This is largely due to increased quality of nutrients in the diet and not any one factor of the diet itself. Incorporating the foods and eating patterns of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea continues to provide promising evidence on lengthening the lifespan and reducing the risk of chronic disease. By doing so, it also ensures a nutrient dense diet that may be advantageous for those in a weight loss phase. It must be noted that a recent article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that for improving body composition, a wide range of dietary approaches from low fat, high fat, low carb, to intermittent fasting all provide similar effects on body composition changes when calories are matched. Instead of focusing on one sole diet, one should focus on an overall balanced diet filled foods that make them feel their best, perform optimally, and provide their body will the vital nutrients it needs to thrive in and out of the gym. My hope is that you can take the Mediterranean diet and incorporate it’s characteristics into your lifestyle, spreading the Mediterranean magic into your own life.
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