It seems like every week there’s a new “must-try” diet making its rounds on the internet and in magazines. We’ve heard of low-carb, high-carb, Paleo, Weight Watchers and even juice diets.
Will any of them actually help you lose weight and maintain muscle—and more importantly, are they healthy?
We turned to registered dietitian Anna Bessonova to cut through the hype and clear up the confusion surrounding popular diets. She explained which diet she believes is best for losing weight while maintaining muscle.
The Winning Diet
“A Mediterranean diet, also called an anti-inflammatory diet, is filled with foods that can reduce a person’s chance of developing conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and even Alzheimer’s disease,” Bessonova said.
Surprisingly, chronic inflammation is one of the major contributors to weight gain and most of the disease conditions listed above. The main triggers of the inflammation are excessive body fat tissue and poor dietary/lifestyle choices, like a diet high in sugar and saturated fats, hidden food allergens, lack of exercise, chronic stress, and hidden infections. By adding anti-inflammatory foods and controlling your blood sugar, you may lose and keep off weight more easily.
So what is this magical sounding Mediterranean diet? No, it doesn’t mean eating strictly Greek food. Its name comes from the rich culture and cuisines of many nations along the Mediterranean Sea, including countries like Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Morocco, who traditionally follow a diet high in fruits, veggies, legumes, fish and whole grains and low in salt, red meat and processed foods.
A Mediterranean diet also includes consuming dairy products, red wine and sweets in moderation. Emphasis is placed on a variety of minimally processed and, wherever possible, seasonally fresh and locally grown foods to maximize the health-promoting nutrients of these foods.
Unlike traditional Western diets, which are packed with foods containing artery-clogging saturated fats and trans-fats, the anti-inflammatory diet is rich in mono-unsaturated fats from olives, nuts, seeds and avocados, which have numerous health benefits.
“Sticking to Mediterranean diet principles will not only help you keep a trim waistline and a chiseled physique, it’ll contribute greatly to your overall health,” Bessonova said. “Studies have repeatedly shown a link between this type of diet and increased longevity, or a lower chance for death at any age.”
A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, for example, found that a Mediterranean-style diet resulted in better long-term participation and adherence among participants when compared to a low-fat diet. Another study, the Nurses Health Study, found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet promotes both overall health and longevity among participants.
Mediterranean-style diet foods
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Olive oil
- Brown, black or red rice
- Whole grains
- Greek yogurt
- Small portions of cheese
- Herbs and spices in place of salt
- Red wine
More Than “Just a Diet”… a Way of Life
Bessonova says it’s not all about what you eat, but what you do beyond eating makes this diet so special. The Mediterranean Diet is based on the principles of enjoyment and pleasure. When possible, foods, drinks and meals are eaten with others, and savored.
“Rather than setting rigid goals for how much you can eat and when, adopt a habit of mindful eating,” Bessonova suggests. “Choose healthy options and eat when you’re hungry. Stop just before you feel full.”
Also, the diet includes healthy lifestyle habits such as regular physical activity at a level which promotes a healthy weight, fitness and well-being.
Let’s not forget, that, balance and moderation is another important key element of the Mediterranean diet. For example, your plate would be typically filled with far more fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains than any other food group, filling you up and providing energy, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
An eating pattern high in these foods promotes good health and weight control. In a typical Western diet, on the other hand, you’d eat far more servings of refined carbs like white bread and pasta, saturated fats like red meat and butter, all of which can be detrimental to both your weight and your overall health when eaten out of proportion.
Bessonova advises learning what a real portion of different types of food looks like. For example:
1 serving meat = a deck of cards
1 serving grains = a computer mouse
1 serving fruit = a closed fist
1 serving cheese = a matchbox
In order to see sustained weight loss results from the Meditteranean-style diet, Bessonova advises following it for at least six months—preferably for life—and getting regular physical exercise each week.