Following a Mediterranean diet in India: Here’s everything to know

For the fifth year in a row, the Mediterranean diet topped the rankings as the healthiest diet overall. In addition, US News chose it as the best diet in five categories: best diet for healthy eating, easiest to follow, best for diabetes, best for heart health, and the best plant-based diet.

The Mediterranean diet or MedDiet is a tasty, nutritious diet high in fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, healthy fats, nuts, seeds, and whole grains that provide dietary fibre, optimum protein, antioxidants, micronutrients, flavonoids, etc. Many research studies have demonstrated its benefits in controlling or preventing non-communicable diseases, reducing inflammation, optimising brain function, and promoting overall health. MedDiet is flexible, without any strict rules, and is personalised according to the individual’s needs. Indians, however, complain it does not suit their eating and cooking styles and is not sustainable long-term.

In this article, you will find comprehensive information on the dietary principle of MedDiet, some of its health benefits, foods to eat and avoid, and a sample meal plan tailored for an Indian audience. Let’s put the world’s best-ranked diet on the table.

What is a Mediterranean diet?

The MedDiet is a traditional diet followed by countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea basin such as Greece, Italy, Spain, among others. By observing the relationship between the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in some traditional Mediterranean communities and their specific dietary habits, Ancel Keys, an American scientist, coined the term ‘Mediterranean diet’ and brought it to the medical public’s attention. Over the past few decades, researchers have also explored the use of the MedDiet as a therapeutic intervention for aging, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease.

The diet encourages consumption of olive oil as the primary cooking medium, plant foods — whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds — moderate consumption of fresh fish, seafood, dairy, and avoiding red meat. It restricts ultra-processed foods, packaged foods, sugar, trans-fats, refined grains, and ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook food.

Health benefits

MedDiet has shown potential health benefits for a wide range of conditions.

The best diet for heart health

The Mediterranean diet keeps the heart-healthy. (Source: Getty images)

A MedDiet is recommended by renowned health bodies such as the American Heart Association. A number of high-quality studies have found that the diet is associated with a low risk of heart diseases and strokes. Nuts, seeds, fish, leafy greens, fruits, and legumes contribute to the heart-healthy qualities of the diet.

A 2021 randomised control trial (RCT) of 1,002 coronary heart disease patients reported decreased thickness of common carotid arteries. Low-fat diets did not produce these results. The researchers concluded that consuming an extra virgin olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet over the long term decreased the risk of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries). In a 2016 review of six trials involving more than 7,000 people, the MedDiet was also found to reduce blood pressure.

MedDiet in diabetes

The Mediterranean diet consists of natural, whole foods which are beneficial for people with type-2 diabetes. The National Health Service, UK recognises and recommends the diet for its higher fat content, plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. PREDIMED, a large, multicenter, controlled RCT found that the MedDiet enriched with extra virgin olive oil and nuts reduced diabetes risk by 52 per cent in people with a high cardiovascular risk. In the low-fat diet cohort, similar results were not observed. Regardless of calorie restriction, increased physical activity, or weight loss, the authors found the beneficial effect appears to be dependent on overall dietary composition.

Supports healthy aging

You can eat your way to a longer life with MedDiet. Researchers have found that consuming the diet reduces the risk of age-related decline in lean muscle, bone density, fertility, and chronic health issues like diabetes. The omega 3 and 6 fatty acids obtained from nuts, seeds, and fish are major contributors to improved ageing according to a 2020 review.

Promotes brain function

The diet promotes optimum brain function and reduces the risk of brain disorders. (Source: Pexels)

MedDiet promotes optimum brain function and reduces the risk of multiple brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive impairment. Researchers found that long-term adherence to the diet led to improved memory in 512 Alzheimer’s patients studied in 2021. An extensive review also reported improved cognitive function, memory, attention span, and processing speed in healthy older adults who followed the diet.

MedDiet in Indian context

Healthy food groups in the MedDiet can be chosen to suit any style of eating, including Indian cuisine. In India, most people believe MedDiet is all about olive oil, an uncommon cooking medium. But, it is so much more than that.

What to eat?

The MedDiet is primarily plant-based, recommending eating fish and seafood at least twice a week with minimal red meat, poultry, and eggs. It avoids deep-frying, excessive oil use, and spices — some characteristics of Indian cooking.

Indians should begin improving their diet for better health, considering the mountain of medical research on the benefits of the MedDiet. The diet includes all green vegetables, sweet potatoes, tubers, dark leafy greens, fresh seasonal fruits, nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds), legumes and beans (peas, lentils, moong, toor, chickpeas, Bengal gram), whole grains (oats, brown rice, millets, barley, whole wheat bread), fish and seafood, dairy (cheese, yogurt, milk), herbs and spices.

Except for olives, avocados, and their oils, all of these foods are abundant in India. In fact, fresh produce is readily available in most Indian markets. By consuming nuts, seeds, fish, ghee, coconut oil, and groundnut oil, Indians can meet their daily requirement of healthy fats.

What to avoid or limit?

MedDiet limits or avoids processed and ultra-processed foods loaded with added sugar, refined carbs (white bread, pasta, chips, crackers, etc.), trans-fat (margarine, deep fried foods), refined seed oils (soybean oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil), processed meats. Whether you follow MedDiet or not, these foods should be off-limits considering their detrimental effects on health.

A sample menu for the beginners

The amount is individualised and must be decided by a nutritionist.

BreakfastOatmeal with nuts OR an omelet with veggies, yogurt with sliced fruits and nuts.
Lunch – Brown rice, fish grilled, pulses, green veggies.
Snack – A handful of nuts OR hard boiled egg, cottage cheese with fresh fruits.
DinnerGrilled chicken salad with tomato, cucumber, grated cheese, seeds, chopped nuts, dressing.

That said, as we now know, MedDiet can be followed by Indians if they choose to do so. Why not give it a try?

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