Life-changing plans for healthy, tasty eating
When Bert Herald, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, talks to outpatients who want to lose weight, he can truly empathize. Herald, who was previously an electrical engineer, changed his diet, exercise habits and career around adopting a healthier lifestyle — and lost 115 pounds along the way.
A Mediterranean-style eating plan played a role in Herald’s transformation. The Mediterranean diet is widely considered one of the healthiest diets around. Loosely based on eating styles of regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, it consistently earns a top spot in U.S. News Best Diets Overall ranking, as well as high marks for heart-healthy, healthy eating and diabetes diets.
With the wide range of available food choices to satisfy every palate, it’s also ranked No. 1 among easiest diets to follow. If you’re starting out on the Mediterranean diet, try these real-life tips to boost your success:
Practice mindful eating and moderation.
For Veronique Eichler, the Mediterranean diet helped her reach her health and weight-loss goals. Eichler, a nutrition coach based in western North Carolina, shed more than 50 pounds following Mediterranean guidelines.
“I’ve always eaten lots of fruits and vegetables,” says Eichler, who grew up in France. “I was kind of 80% there for most of my life. But it’s not until I embraced some of the principles of mindful eating and moderation, and treating sweets as treats, that it really had a significant impact on my health and my weight loss.”
It took about a year and a half for Eichler to reach her personal healthy weight range. In addition, she says, “I’ve also reduced my cholesterol, which got out of range and now is super-excellent.”
As a strong enthusiast, Eichler is now the founder and moderator of the Facebook support group “Mediterranean Diet Foodies” and moderator of the group “Modern Mediterranean Diet.” She is also a member of the “Make Every Day Mediterranean” Facebook group hosted by Oldways.
Find ‘gateway’ fruits and veggies.
If you aren’t in the habit of eating a lot of fresh produce, picking up an apple or broccoli spear won’t come naturally at first. “Generally, pretty much everybody has one or two things — kind of like gateway vegetables or gateway fruits — that open the door,” Herald says. “It’s, ‘I do kind of like a watermelon sometimes,’ or ‘Yeah, sometimes I’ll eat some blueberries.’ So you start there and work those things into your diet.”
Continuing to incorporate healthy Mediterranean foods can be a slow-but-steady process. “Sometimes it can take a year or more for people to gradually change,” he says. “It’s not overnight.”
Incorporate signature ingredients.
Tasty food is the difference-maker between diet drudgery and enjoyable, sustainable eating. “The reason why the Mediterranean diet is so appealing is that it begins with a set of ingredients,” says Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen. “So, once you understand the ingredients that are the bedrock of the Mediterranean diet,” you’re on your way.
Recipes from dozens of cuisines and cultures all around the Mediterranean Sea incorporate basic ingredients, Bishop notes: “It’s olive-oil based. It’s whole grains and vegetables. It’s fish and seafood and small amounts of chicken, red meat and dairy products really in very limited amounts.”
Bring on the herbs and spices.
As a chef, Bishop uses herbs and spices to make food come alive. You can do the same in your own kitchen.
With Mediterranean cooking, hallmark herbs and spices “really vary across regions,” he says. “From smoked paprika, which you see in a lot of Spanish dishes and which is probably my absolute favorite spice — it has earthiness, chili flavor and smokiness — to cumin in North African cooking.”
When it comes to flavor development, herb and spices, including “tons and tons of fresh basil, fresh parsley and fresh cilantro are the cook’s healthiest, best choices,” Bishop says. “It’s tons of flavor and there are no downsides. They’re calorie-free.”
Find sodium alternatives.
Parmesan, tomato paste and anchovies, for instance, are also flavor enhancers, Bishop says, but if you’re moderating your sodium intake, then you need to use them more sparingly.
If you’re looking for flavorful alternatives, “Think about how citrus gets used, and acidity,” he suggests. “A lot of dishes, frankly, will benefit at the end not just from more salt but from more acidity. And that can be a squirt of lemon juice, it can be a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or sherry vinegar. So that’s another great way to really build flavor in so many Mediterranean dishes.”
Recognize entrenched eating habits.
Growing up in sweltering Arizona, “I was a very poor eater,” says Herald, who recalls coming home from school each day and drinking nearly a six-pack of cola for hydration. “To me, that was water — we drank soda.”
Fast food is another common habit that’s often hard to break. Through early adulthood, he says, “Fast food was a huge part of my life. I had to gradually steer the ship and change a lot of that.”
Wearing his dietitian hat, Herald says, “The emphasis I have with patients is: It’s a lifestyle change. When you use the word ‘diet’ with the Mediterranean diet, it’s not a connotation of a ‘weight-loss diet.’ It’s a style of eating.”
Plug in weight-loss components.
Although the Mediterranean diet isn’t necessarily a weight-loss diet, you can certainly take it in that direction. “You have to dial in appropriate portions sizes and calories that are restricted so that you’ll lose some weight,” Herald says. Spot-checking your weight once a week can help you stay on track, he says.
A measuring cup, set of measuring spoons and a food scale are simple but essential kitchen tools. Calorie and fitness apps allow you to plug in specific foods and portion sizes and stay on top of your daily calories, nutrients and exercise totals. That can help you tailor healthy Mediterranean-style meals to meet your individual weight-loss goals.
Ease in with familiar seafood and chicken.
What if you’re a protein-packing, red-meat lover trying to go Mediterranean? “For the person who’s used to protein, start thinking about all the chicken dishes,” Bishop suggests. “Chicken is always a transition.” For instance, he says, chicken piccata with lemon or chicken tajine are tasty poultry choices.
Shrimp dishes are also appealing to many people making the transition, says Bishop, who advises buying frozen shrimp from the freezer aisle rather than at the seafood counter. “All the shrimp you buy at the supermarket that you think is fresh is actually frozen shrimp that someone else defrosted,” he explains. Instead, pick up bags of individually quick frozen shrimp, which you can defrost whenever you’re ready.
In terms of fish, he says, salmon is another Mediterranean staple already in most consumers’ comfort zone.
Savor wine in moderation at most.
For many people, enjoying a daily glass of red wine is an appealing feature of the Mediterranean diet. But wine consumption is strictly optional. “A glass of wine a day is not really hurting people, but it’s probably not super-helpful,” Herald says.
Alcohol, particularly long-time, heavy drinking, has been linked to increased risk of certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, liver disease and other health problems. Although a wine component called resveratrol has shown some heart-healthy effects in studies, Herald says, you couldn’t possibly drink enough to get clinically significant doses. “In fact, if you want the nutrients from wine — eat some grapes,” he suggests.
Wine consumption is a gray area in the Mediterranean diet, Eichler says. “Most people don’t understand what a serving of wine is,” she adds. According to the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a single serving of wine equals 5 ounces. Moderate wine consumption consists of one daily drink at most for women and two daily drinks at most for men. In terms of the diet, she says, “If you don’t drink wine, don’t start.”
Bishop points out that wine is consumed as part of the meal, with food at the table, in Mediterranean cultures. “It’s not really a necessary part of the diet — it’s a traditional part of the lifestyle, for people who want to mimic that.”
Reconfigure your plate.
The Mediterranean diet is actually more a state of mind than an actual diet, Eichler explains. But you can take practical steps to get there. “Understanding that a 16-ounce steak is not a good idea with what it does to your arteries and body in general, and cutting it down to 4 ounces — that’s a beginning,” she says.
Your plate actually serves as a visual portioning tool. “Try to have half of your plate filled with green or nonstarchy vegetables,” she advises. “Pick one that you like, to start with, and build from there. Have broccoli, or spinach or whatever, and keep trying new things.”
It takes a little time to build new habits, Eichler notes. “If you force yourself to fill half your plate with vegetables for six weeks, it becomes a habit after a while.”
Talk to a diet professional.
Before starting any diet — even one as healthy as the Mediterranean diet — it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor first. “Have that doctor refer you to a dietitian, at least for an initial consult,” Herald suggests.
In some cases, repeated counseling every few weeks or so is worth considering. “A lot of people do need ongoing help,” Herald says, and benefits are backed by research, he adds. “It really does help make this stuff stick, because there are a lot of changes you have to make and it’s easy to fall off the wagon.”
One-on-one coaching is also an option to educate you about the Mediterranean diet and help you follow it successfully, Eichler says.
Plan ahead before eating out.
When you go out to a restaurant, will you be able to resist ordering bowls of steaming pasta in generous portions just like those being served to your fellow diners?
Planning ahead of time is key to avoid being seduced by single restaurant servings that could “serve a family of six,” Eichler says. “I always look up the restaurant’s menu before I go there.” Picking out what to order in advance is really helpful, she says. There’s usually a fish option, she notes, adding that she steers clear of fast food including fried fish.
Plating your food in right-sized portions as soon as it’s served, and then saving the rest to take home, is another helpful strategy that she recommends.
Turn to reliable resources.
Unlike some other eating plans, there isn’t a ‘one’ Mediterranean diet that spells out precise requirements in terms of specific foods and nutrient counts. That said, you can find plenty of resources in terms of Mediterranean-style recipes and Mediterranean-friendly recommendations:
— The Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, created in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, provides a colorful, easy-to-comprehend depiction of priority foods, and touches on aspects such as exercise and social meal sharing.
— MyPlate, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative, includes an illustration of a four-section plate showing fruits, vegetables, grain and protein in proportion, along with a ‘glass’ of dairy on the side. Although not exactly the Mediterranean diet, it offers a simple visual for making Mediterranean-ish food choices.
— The downloadable 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the USDA includes a new listing of the Mediterranean-style dietary pattern with different serving sizes for different food groups.
— Other resources Herald recommends include a descriptive page from the Mayo Clinic website, basic tips from the American Heart Association and suggestions from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Carve out time to prioritize food.
If you’re a busy person who mostly relies on fast food, switching over to healthy home cooking can feel like a major imposition on your time. “I tell people to try to find one or two days a week, where things have calmed down enough and you can carve out some time to prioritize food,” Herald says.
During this allotted time slot, Herald says, tell yourself: I’m going to make out a grocery list. I’m going to go out and get some food, make this recipe — and I’m going to make enough to have leftovers. “That allows you to have other days during the week where you don’t have to prepare anything,” he notes. “In a typical scenario where you come home exhausted and don’t want to cook anything — well, you’ve got this leftover. You can pop it in the microwave, heat it up or whatever and you’re good.”
You can use also plan and pack lunches ahead to bring to work and reduce at least some of the days you go out for fast food.
Looking into Mediterranean meal delivery services is another strategy to save time while sticking to your new eating plan.
Give exercise another chance.
Regular exercise — whether it’s walking, running, dancing or gardening — is an important part of the Mediterranean diet.
It’s possible to embrace physical activity, even if you’ve always tended to shy away. “I mocked people who ran,” Herald says. “I just hated it when I was in PE in high school — absolutely thought it was something I would never even consider.”
Fast forward to adulthood as he shifted his lifestyle. “I gradually started experimenting with running as I lost a lot of weight, 50 or 60 pounds in,” he says. “Then, lo and behold, I just actually became a runner. It became a passion — I really loved it. I did marathons and I still run to this day.”
Marshall your motivation.
When starting a Mediterranean diet, take the long view of your progress. That includes overall health improvement and — if that’s your goal — weight loss.
“It took me about a year and a half for about 115 pounds of weight loss,” Herald recalls. That was around 2011 and 2012. “To say that I just sailed into the sunset after that and everything was just rosy — that I ate without thinking, just followed my hunger cues and all that kind of nonsense — that’s a lie,” he says. “It is a struggle that goes on. And the weight-loss process goes on beyond when you hit the goal weight. It’s a lifelong kind of battle.”
It takes a “tremendous” amount of motivation, Herald says. “You have to really want to do this. It’s not automatic, especially if you want to do 50 or 60 pounds, or 100 pounds, of weight loss. That can take years of a dedicated, consistent effort of tracking what you’re eating and exercising. Simply changing how you eat is one part of the puzzle. But there are a lot of parts to this puzzle.”
16 tips to succeed on a Mediterranean diet
Make the Mediterranean diet work for you by taking these steps:
— Practice mindful eating and moderation.
— Find ‘gateway’ fruits and veggies.
— Incorporate signature ingredients.
— Bring on the herbs and spices.
— Find sodium alternatives.
— Recognize entrenched eating habits.
— Plug in weight-loss components.
— Ease in with familiar seafood and chicken.
— Savor wine in moderation at most.
— Reconfigure your plate.
— Talk to a diet professional.
— Plan ahead before eating out.
— Turn to reliable resources.
— Carve out time to prioritize food.
— Give exercise another chance.
— Marshall your motivation.
More from U.S. News
16 Tips From Real People to Succeed on the Mediterranean Diet originally appeared on usnews.com