The Only 'Diet' You Need for Weight Loss
Yes, it's good for your heart, but the Mediterranean diet can also help you drop pounds
En español | Over the decades, you’ve tried every diet imaginable — Atkins, Weight Watchers, SlimFast, Zone, Blood Type, South Beach — even the Master Cleanse. And while you shed 10, 20, even 30 pounds, eventually you regain them all — and more.
But there is one eating plan that’s different. Focusing primarily on plant-based foods and healthy fats such as olive and canola oils, the Mediterranean diet has long been known for its heart-health benefits (and, more recently, its brain-boosting effect). But major studies show that this eating plan is also effective for both losing and maintaining weight, especially among older adults.
A 2016 review published in the American Journal of Medicine, for example, found that people who eat this way lose between 9 and 22 pounds and still keep it off after a year. Another 2016 study, published in the medical journal the Lancet, followed people between the ages of 55 and 80 for five years and revealed that those who followed a Mediterranean-style diet — and, notably, one that wasn’t at all calorie restricted — lost at least some weight and gained less fat around their midsection than a control group did.
“The Mediterranean diet isn’t so much a ‘diet’ as it is a lifestyle,” explains Julie Upton, a San Francisco–based registered dietitian and coauthor of The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health's 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions. “Simply choosing the foods that are consistent with the Mediterranean food pyramid are bound to be beneficial for your waistline because they provide more filling fiber and calorie-poor fruits and veggies.”
There are also specific reasons for the plan's weight-loss benefits for people over 50. “It’s a high-protein diet, both from animal sources, such as fatty fish, and plant sources, such as legumes,” notes Kate Patton, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. This is important for older adults, who need protein to help stave off age-related muscle loss, which lowers your metabolism.
Because the diet is rich in healthy fats such as the monounsaturated kind in olive oil, nuts and avocados, it helps you feel fuller, so you’re more content with less food. And it's low in added sugars, which is important given that the older you are, the more likely you are to develop insulin resistance. (One study showed that following the Mediterranean diet lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 52 percent.)
And, unlike some trendy approaches, the Mediterranean plan doesn’t ban carbs; rather, the emphasis is on getting them from fruits and veggies as well as from fiber-rich whole grains, oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, and red-skinned or sweet potatoes. Another bonus is that you can drink wine — up to six ounces a day. (No beer or hard liquor allowed, though.)
Intrigued? Here are some simple ways to effortlessly integrate this waist-whittling eating plan into your life.
Focus on plant-based foods. The Mediterranean diet's emphasis on staples like fruits, veggies and legumes (beans and peas), plus healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seed oils, means you'll eat slightly fewer animal proteins and dairy. So plan to get at least five servings a day of fruits and veggies, and work in a meatless meal, like Italian garden pizza or veggie burritos, one night a week minimum, says Upton. Another easy way to get your produce quotient: Start meals with a salad or tomato-based soup, and end them on a sweet note, with fresh fruit.
Swap out beef for fish. Seafood is regular fare in the Mediterranean region of the world. “They generally eat fish and seafood at least three times a week, while Americans eat a fish meal about once a week,” says Upton. But fish, particularly fatty fish, provide plenty of heart- and brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids — nutrients that are key for older adults. Swap out beef or pork for fatty fish like salmon, sardines or tuna at least twice a week. “It can be as simple as opening up a can of tuna and pouring it over your salad,” says Patton. While you’re at it, throw in some walnuts, too, as they’re one of the plant-based sources of omega-3 fats, and they are prevalent in Mediterranean meals, adds Upton.
Be judicious with the olive oil. While the Mediterranean diet is known for being chock-full of good-for-you-fats like olive oil and nuts, these foods are high in calories. “If you deep-fry food in olive oil, you’re not going to lose weight — that’s very different from tossing a tablespoon onto your salad or grilled vegetables,” stresses Edwin McDonald IV, M.D., a nutrition and weight-loss specialist at the University of Chicago. His recommendation: Limit heart-healthy oils to no more than a couple of tablespoons a day, and keep nuts to a fourth of a cup (the equivalent of a handful or less) each day. When cooking, you can keep calories down by throwing in plenty of herbs and spices, instead of oil, to flavor your foods.
Savor meals with family and friends. One key component of the Mediterranean diet is that it encourages you to sit down at the table and take time to enjoy a meal with friends and family. (Not surprisingly, research shows that eating alone may raise the risk of obesity and diseases such as metabolic syndrome.) “The Mediterranean diet really encourages intuitive and mindful eating, since you’re sitting down and really enjoying food, instead of standing up in the kitchen or eating in the car,” says Chicago nutritionist Barbie Boules. “It makes it a much richer experience.” As a result, you’ll be satisfied with eating less.
Tempted by a trendy diet?
Here’s what experts say about three current fads:
Paleo. Advocates insist that eating in a way similar to how we did in caveman times — unprocessed meat, fish, eggs, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds — is the way to go when it comes to trimming your waistline. But the meal plan shuns dairy, which provides the calcium and vitamin D that are crucial for older adults to maintain strong bones. The typical Paleo diet is also high in protein and saturated fat, raising the risk of kidney and heart diseases. “It’s not sustainable over the long term,” says Patton.
Ketogenic. This high-fat diet (up to 80 percent of your nutrition comes from fat) is thought to work by driving your body into ketosis, a state where it burns fat as its primary fuel, instead of carbohydrates, says Patton. But the fact that the diet is so restrictive — most fruits and whole grains are off limits, for example — makes it hard to stick to in the long run, notes Patton. “We also don’t know what the long-term effects of such a high-fat diet are on cholesterol levels as well as overall inflammation in the body, especially in older adults,” she stresses.
Gluten free. Contrary to popular belief, going on a gluten-free diet may actually cause you to gain weight, according to a review of research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This may be because people tend to turn to higher-fat foods to compensate for giving up gluten, suggests Patton. Another reason to pass on the approach unless you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is that a 2017 study found that going gluten free may raise your risk of heart disease.