Go big green

The Mediterranean diet continues to win high marks as a healthy, disease-fighting diet. Studies show that people who regularly adhere to the diet lower their risks for cardiovascular disease, many types of cancer, and cognitive decline with age.

But is it possible that this healthy diet can be made even healthier?

“New research has looked closely at the specific ingredients of the Mediterranean diet to see if certain ones stand out,” says Dr. Iris Shai, a professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a researcher from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. “It turns out that making the diet ‘greener’ by boosting amounts of dark green vegetables, green tea, and plant proteins may offer even greater benefits.”

The power of polyphenols

The Mediterranean diet is a plant-based diet that follows the eating habits of many Mediterranean-rim countries. These areas and others that follow similar diets traditionally have low rates of disease and higher-than-average life expectancy.

One quirk of the Mediterranean diet is that there are no standard portion sizes or servings. “In many ways, the Mediterranean diet is more of a Mediterranean lifestyle,” says Dr. Shai. “You may eat more or less of certain foods from day to day.”

This makes highlighting the diet’s specific benefits difficult. For instance, are its heart-health advantages due to higher amounts of unsaturated fats, like olive oil, fatty fish, and nuts? Or inflammation-fighting antioxidants from fruits and vegetables? Or from eating less red meat and processed foods? Or any of the various combinations of foods and amounts?

When researchers looked closer at these foods, one thing that stood out was the presence of polyphenols, compounds that help defend plants from stress, such as infection with soil bacteria. They are abundant in bright-colored fruits and dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli. They also are found in walnuts, red wine, and black and green tea.

What’s on the plate?The Mediterranean diet includes regular intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs, spices, and olive oil. Seafood, especially fatty fish, is preferred over red meat. Dairy foods and alcohol are limited except for the occasional red wine. These foods also are eaten in their natural state, without added chemicals and ingredients.

Putting green to the test

With this information in hand, researchers next explored the effect of boosting the quantity of polyphenol-rich foods in a traditional Mediterranean diet. In essence, they made the diet “greener” by increasing the amounts of dark green vegetables and green tea.

One study, published online Nov. 23, 2020, by the journal Heart, divided about 300 sedentary people (mostly men) into three groups. One group followed a low-calorie traditional Mediterranean diet (1,500 to 1,800 daily calories for men). Another followed a low-calorie green Mediterranean diet. The control group was assigned to a non-Mediterranean diet in which they were instructed to follow basic healthy eating guidelines.

The green diet included the Mediterranean diet’s main foods but added extra dark green leafy vegetables to meals, three to four daily cups of green tea, and a daily plant-based shake made with Mankai, a form of the aquatic plant duckweed, a popular Southeast Asian meat substitute high in polyphenols and protein.

After six months, the people eating the green diet lost significantly more weight (almost 14 pounds) than the control group (about three pounds) while the regular Mediterranean diet group lost nearly 12 pounds.

In addition, those assigned to the green diet trimmed a little over three inches from their waists, on average. The green eaters also showed significant decreases in LDL cholesterol compared with people in the other groups. What’s more, they had sharper drops in insulin resistance, inflammation markers, and blood pressure.

A green Mediterranean diet may have other benefits. The same version cut the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease by half among obese people who followed the diet for 18 months, according to a study published online Jan. 18, 2021, by Gut.

Any kind will do

Does this mean you should only go green when it comes to adopting a Mediterranean diet? Not necessarily, says Dr. Shai.

“These new findings just confirm the reputation of the Mediterranean diet as one of the best diets available,” she says. “We all know that plant-based foods are healthy. Now we just have more evidence why.”

Her suggestion is to begin with the traditional Mediterranean diet and see where it leads you. “If you ever want to do more, then taking a greener approach might be appealing.”

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8

 “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – Mark 11:24

 “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” – Proverbs 12:25

 “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” – Luke 12:25

 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11

 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

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