Maintaining a balance of proper micros and macros to fuel up your training program can be a trick, at times. Nutrition is a complicated dance of consuming enough protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals to support your body's natural metabolic process, which denotes your ability to recover well. If you don't have time for a food journal, a budget for your own personal nutritionist, or you've simply got too much on your plate to manage yet another thing, keep it simple. Eating a Mediterranean diet helps—big time. And in fact, believe it or not, it may actually help you not only get stronger, but also live longer.
Research from the Harvard Medical School recently found that in addition to being good for your heart and brain, the Mediterranean diet may also help protect your telomeres. Telomeres are located at the ends of your chromosomes and shield the ends from fraying. They are considered to be biomarkers of aging, which essentially means "shorter telomeres are associated with a lower life expectancy and higher rates of developing chronic diseases," according to the study. After analyzing results in over 4,600 subjects, people who ate (and stuck to) a Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomeres, and that "even small changes in diet made a difference." Hard to say no to that, right?
What is a Mediterranean Diet?
According to Mayo Clinic, while there is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, it's a (you guessed it) style of eating based on the cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, like Italy, Spain and Greece, in the 1960s. The American Heart Association describes the staples of the Mediterranean diet as “…plenty of fruits, vegetables, [un-refinded] bread and other grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds; olive oil as a primary fat source; and dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts.” From this wide variety of foods, the diet hits all major food groups, avoids processed and refined sugars and grains, and is generally a great plan to follow for healthy living, according to Corinna Coffin, MS, RD and Spartan Elite athlete.
Why is a Mediterranean Diet Awesome for Athletes?
With an emphasis on carbohydrates (particularly fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains) to fuel activity, lean proteins to support muscle growth, and healthy fats to combat inflammation and support hormone production, the Mediterranean diet is ideal for athletes looking to enhance performance and eat well, says Coffin. Without overthinking it, you can easily make a few changes to support a healthier diet and lifestyle.
How to Easily Implement a Mediterranean Diet Into Your Lifestyle
"If you tend to consume a highly processed diet and are looking to the Mediterranean diet as a guide to change your nutrition habits, a good starting place might be to make an “inclusions” list of foods you’d like to prioritize in your everyday regimen (rather than focusing on things to cut out)," says Coffin. This approach helps to focus your efforts toward adding new food items and get creative with meal planning. Rather than putting added guilt and pressure that comes with an elimination strategy.
Coffin recommends including fresh fruits and veggies at each meal, and opting for leaner meats or fish. Avoid all-things processed sugars and refined grains, and instead, imagine what would grow in the fields, orchards and farms on the Mediterranean. Then, eat those kinds of whole foods. (i.e. You wouldn't find breads with preservatives and enriched wheat flour in the 1960s, but instead whole grains.)
But What About Red Wine, Dark Chocolate and Other 'Treats' in the Mediterranean Diet?
We all know the Mediterranean prides itself on being home to some of the best wine, chocolate and cheese in the world. (Any connoisseur knows it's true!) But if you're wary about these elements in the Med lifestyle that appear unhealthy and might set you back, fear not. "Western diet culture tends to demonize certain foods, creating associated feelings of guilt and/or shame when consumed, instead of supporting the intake of less nutritious foods for enjoyment in moderation," says Coffin. Instead of propagating this mindset, which ultimately sets you back, think about creating a diet plan for longevity that you can seriously stick to.
"The best “diets” are the ones that you can sustain long-term and ultimately become a lifestyle rather than a strict way of eating," says Coffin. "The stricter the diet, the less sustainable it is to follow, which is why I appreciate that the Mediterranean diet includes what some may consider ‘indulgences’ such as manchego cheese, dark chocolate and red wine." Because minimally processed plant-based foods, healthy fats and lean proteins are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, rather than cheese, chocolate and wine, "it would be challenging to overeat on a diet with such high-volume, nutrient-dense foods such as these."
"Treats" are an important part of everyday life. (Otherwise, what else is there to live for, right?!) "When we feel restricted, we often desire the very things we are trying to restrict and the plan backfires," says Coffin. "Instead, by allowing ourselves to act on our sweet tooth in moderation, the focus becomes less about the treat and the thought that it might be your only opportunity to consume said treat, and more about balance in all the foods you eat."
So if you're feeling overwhelmed by your nutrition plan, consider switching over to the Mediterranean diet as a lifestyle instead. Embody your inner Italian and think about adding in more healthy lean proteins and plant-based foods. It can be that simple. And science shows you may actually live longer. Boom.