The Mediterranean diet gained ground in the 1950s when it was observed that heart disease was not as prevalent in Mediterranean countries. When it comes to blood-sugar-friendly lifestyle changes and heart health, the Mediterranean diet is all the rage. Let’s look at what makes it uniquely beneficial for blood sugar control and how you can work your dietary plan around it in conjunction with your health professional/nutritionist.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a broad term for the traditional eating patterns of people in Greece, Italy and Spain—countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea—and has long been studied for its health benefits (1). However, the Mediterranean diet encompasses within its ambit not merely ingredients but also the processes involved in obtaining, cooking and consuming the foods themselves, as well as the adoption of lifestyle changes such as consuming alcohol in moderation, refraining from smoking and being physically active (2). As Caroline West Passerrello, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, sums it up: ‘A Mediterranean diet is greater than just the foods and is really a way of life.’ (2) It’s a diet rich in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs, spices and nuts as well as seafood. Olive oil is considered the dominant source of added fat.
Mediterranean diet and blood sugar
The glycemic index (GI) refers to a grading system for foods containing carbohydrates. It indicates how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) level when it is consumed on its own. Not all carbohydrates are created equal. It groups them into low-, moderate- and high-GI categories. Foods with a high GI are rapidly digested, absorbed and metabolized, with marked fluctuations in glucose levels. Low GI foods produce smaller fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels and work towards ensuring long-term health by reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (2). Foods with a low GI and high soluble fibres such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes take up a lot of plate space in the Mediterranean diet. (2). According to a study, the Mediterranean diet can help women who are overweight lower their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 30 per cent (3). Researchers also say that this diet can help control blood sugar levels and other factors that can lead to type 2 diabetes (2). ‘Low glycemic index foods help with blood sugar management, largely due to their soluble fibre content,’ says Andy De Santis, a registered dietician with a master’s in public health community nutrition. He adds, ‘Soluble fibre has a slowing effect on the movement of food through the digestive system and thus leads to a more modest insulin response’ (2).
How to eat the Mediterranean way
The Mediterranean diet is not a mere fad but a whole way of life. This is nothing but good news for your overall health and well-being. Let’s look at some ways in which we can adopt the principles of the Mediterranean diet for good blood sugar control.
Load your plate with fruits and vegetables
If fruits and vegetables don’t take up most of the space on your plate at every meal, this is probably where you want to get started. The Mediterranean diet encourages a daily intake of 5–6 servings of fruits and vegetables. But not all vegetables are the same, especially when it comes to blood sugar control. Choose non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, kale and cauliflower over starchy ones like potatoes, corn and peas—and you’re all set. Pairing healthy fats and proteins with your fruits and vegetables can also be an excellent way to feel full for longer. For example, eating ¼ cup of pistachios when snacking on an orange can help slow digestion, which is better for glucose control (4).
Switch to plant-based protein
If you’re used to getting your protein quota from meat and eggs, the idea of plant-based proteins may seem discouraging at first. But when you see the wonders that chickpeas, black beans and lentils do for your blood sugar, it’s easy to see why the Mediterranean diet favours plant-based proteins and fibres such as beans, legumes and tofu as staples over animal-based proteins. The trick to keeping blood sugar levels stable is sticking to basic portion sizes (½ to 1 cup for beans and legumes). Take your plant-based protein with vegetables and whole grains to boost fibres that slow down digestion for good blood sugar control (4).
Stock your pantry with high-fibre whole grains
Whole grains or minimally processed grains such as oats, barley, farro, brown rice and whole-grain bread and pasta are Mediterranean pantry staples as opposed to white bread and pasta (made from processed grains) because they retain minerals, vitamins and fibres that would otherwise be lost during processing. As we’ve already seen, fibres help slow digestion, but combining healthy fats and proteins with whole grains can make them more balanced and a lot more satisfying. But bear in mind that whole grains are still carbs and loading up on carbs can lead to spikes in your blood sugar levels, so portion control is key. Stick to a ½ to 1 cup serving and you’re good to go (4).
Say hello to healthy fats
Diet is a loaded word for most people and is often associated with restriction, especially when it comes to fats. But the Mediterranean diet is by no means a low-fat diet and includes plenty of healthy, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon. What it does leave out, however, is saturated fats found in butter, margarine and animal products. These should be had sparingly, if at all. Also, unsaturated fats are still fats and not recommended beyond 1 serving—for instance, 1 tablespoon for oil, ¼ cup for nuts, ⅓ of an avocado and about 4 ounces (or 113 grams) of salmon (4).
Consume dairy in moderation
The Mediterranean diet recommends consuming dairy in moderation (about 1–3 servings per day). Again, it is important to differentiate between processed and unprocessed dairy. You want to focus on unprocessed sources, which include cheeses like brie, feta, ricotta and parmesan as well as fermented Greek yoghurt. You can pair any of these with fruits and vegetables to slow down digestion. Half an apple with 1 ounce (or 28 grams) of parmesan cheese can make for a great snack that slows down digestion and keeps you full until your next meal. Processed dairy such as American cheese, yoghurts with added sugars and ice cream are not recommended but may be enjoyed mindfully from time to time (4).
Try not to go too meaty
If you’re an avid meat-eater, this is probably going to be the most challenging part of the Mediterranean diet, which relies on fish as its primary source of animal-based protein instead of poultry, pork and red meat. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, herring, tuna and mackerel are the most favoured. Loaded with polyunsaturated fats, they help fight inflammation in the body. They are also loaded with protein, which is why Mediterranean meals leave you feeling full and satiated. For stable blood sugars and better diabetes outcomes, plant-based protein, fish and seafood are the most recommended, though poultry and red meats may also be enjoyed occasionally (4).
The Mediterranean diet has been gathering a lot of good press for its beneficial effects on blood sugar. A broad term for the traditional eating patterns of the people of Italy, Spain and Greece, the Mediterranean diet is more of a way of life and includes lifestyle changes such as consuming alcohol in moderation, not smoking and being physically active. With its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes as a big part of every meal, the Mediterranean diet is naturally suited for blood sugar control, because these are classified as low-GI foods that are high in soluble fibre, which slow digestion and keep blood sugar levels under control. Researchers say that the Mediterranean diet can help blood sugar regulation and other factors that lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. According to studies, the diet can help overweight women lower their risk for type 2 diabetes by 30 percent. Some ways to adopt the principles of the Mediterranean diet include loading up on fruits and vegetables, switching to plant-based proteins, swapping processed grains for high-fibre whole grains, opting for healthy fats and leaving out saturated fats, having dairy in moderation and eating less meat.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.