The Mediterranean and Paleo diets both have their strong devotees and their fervent critics. Midtown Athletic Club in Rochester Nutritionist Sarah Guilbert takes over the blog to compare two popular diet patterns to help you discern which, if either, is the healthiest option for you.
The word “diet” tends to be associated with negative self-image and restriction (“I can’t blow my diet” or “I need to go on a diet and lose these love handles”). It also implies that eating habits are temporary when healthy eating should be an enduring and sustainable lifestyle.
An “eating pattern,” however, is comprised of lifestyle eating habits that serve as a guide to how many servings of different foods you should have each day. Both the Mediterranean Diet and the Paleo Diet fall into the “eating pattern” category.
Before we dive into the specific aspects of each diet, keep in mind that I never recommend one specific eating pattern for everyone. There are benefits and drawbacks to every way of eating. It’s important to find one that is balanced, sustainable, enjoyable, and tailored to your specific needs.
Now let’s take a closer look at these two popular eating patterns.
Longitudinal evidence has demonstrated that the Mediterranean eating pattern lowers your risk of many developing several diseases, including cancer and heart disease (1, 2, 3).
The Mediterranean eating pattern pyramid divides foods into ones that you should eat at every meal, foods that you should eat every day, and foods that you should eat weekly. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olives/olive oil, nuts, and seeds. It encourages limiting starchy vegetables, red meat, and processed meat. White meat, fish, and legumes fall in the middle, with approximately two servings per week of each recommended.
The Mediterranean eating pattern is a good choice for many other reasons. It promotes whole/natural foods, increased fruit and vegetable intake, and it does not restrict any major food groups. It emphasizes cardio-protective fats and encourages limiting the types of fats that have been shown to negatively affect your health (saturated fat and trans fat). The eating pattern promotes the consumption of healthy fat and fiber, which will help promote satiety, and includes potassium-rich food, because it is primarily plant-based and includes many fruits and vegetables.
One criticism of the Mediterranean eating pattern is that it can be low-to-moderate in protein, which is a concern for athletes. It limits white meat to two servings/week and places fish/eggs higher up on the pyramid, which implies that they should be eaten less frequently (although it recommends having at least two servings of fish/week).
For the sample breakdown menu shown below, lunch was low in protein (14 grams). Athletes who require 25-30g protein per meal may need to add more protein to their plates.
The Paleo Diet boasts that it is the “world’s healthiest diet, based on wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Stone Age” (5). It aims to improve overall health, promote weight loss, and lower disease risk (6). It is a relatively new diet and does not have the longitudinal data that other eating patterns have to support it.
Image via athleanx.com
Let’s look at the breakdown of a typical day. The Paleo eating pattern encourages meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and fruits (mostly berries and melons). It excludes grains, dairy, legumes, added sugar, and salt because people living in the Paleolithic age would not have eaten those foods.
The Paleo eating pattern has many benefits. Natural foods and limited processed foods are a big part of this eating pattern, which helps to lower empty calorie intake and reduce sodium intake. It also emphasizes vegetable consumption and is higher in protein than the Mediterranean Diet. This combination will increase satiety and may promote weight loss. The Paleo eating pattern promotes the consumption of lots of fiber (the sample menu below has 47 grams), which can help healthy gastrointestinal function and lower cholesterol levels.
However, this much fiber may be a shock if new followers of the eating pattern try to increase their intake too quickly. Fiber intake should be increased gradually and should be coupled with increased water intake. The typical Paleo eating pattern is also high in potassium, which helps prevent hypertension. By encouraging nuts, the Paleo eating pattern also includes many heart-healthy fats, like the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in almonds.
On the negative side, this eating pattern eliminates multiple key food groups (dairy, grains, legumes). In a study of over 75,000 women, Harvard researchers showed that including 2-to-3 servings of whole grains per day correlated with a 30% lower risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease (8).
This study took place over ten years (compared to the ten days that some of the Paleo studies were conducted). Yes, Americans tend to eat too much processed grains; however, this does not mean that grains should be eliminated from the diet completely.
Another negative aspect is that this diet is excessively high in protein. Based on the 1,800-calorie plan outlined below, a Paleo eater would be getting 151g protein/day on the low end (there is an optional added 3 ounces of fish if protein intake was not satisfying for the day).
Generally acceptable protein intake ranges from .8-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram that you weigh. For example, a 130 pound person would have an upper limit on protein intake of 118g protein/day. This diet also excludes the major source of calcium in the diet: dairy products. Inadequate calcium intake can lead to developing osteopenia and can also be detrimental to heart health (9).
Which Is Best?
The Mediterranean eating pattern is a much more established, balanced way of eating for lifelong health. I would recommend it to most clients, but would also recommend increasing protein slightly at mealtimes. Is the Paleo diet the worst eating pattern out there? No. However, I would not recommend it unless it was modified slightly to reduce protein intake and include at least three servings of whole grains and two servings of dairy products daily. This would ensure that followers of this eating pattern obtain adequate healthy fuel and calcium sources while not overdoing it with protein.
Image via www.naturalhealthadvisory.com
In a future post, I will compare two diets: Advocare and The South Beach Diet. If you would like me to examine other eating patterns and diets, leave a comment on this post.
Paleo (menu from bodybuilding.com)
6 oz Greek yogurt
½ cup strawberries
1 tsp honey
1 slice WW toast
½ mashed avocado
4 slices lean ham
2 cups mixed berries
Low sodium beef jerky
1 WW pita
2 Tbsp hummus
1 cup fresh greens
2 slices tomato
1 cup minestrone soup
1 medium orange
4 oz salmon
2 cups salad
1 T olive oil
2 cups melon
1/8 cup sliced almonds
1/8 cup peanuts
3 oz grilled chicken
1 serving raw vegetables
3 oz salmon
1 tsp tarragon
1 tsp mustard
½ cup couscous
½ cup zucchini
4 spears asparagus
Salad with ½ cup arugala, ½ cup baby spinach, 1 T shaved parmesan cheese, 1 T vinaigrette dressing
5 oz red wine (optional)
3 oz grilled lean steak
2 cups steamed broccoli
Small bunch grapes
½ cup lemon sorbet
1 handful walnuts
3 oz grilled fish (optional)
Calories: 1621 with wine, 1491 without
Carbs: 194g (50.5%)
Fat: 53g (31%)
Protein: 71g (18.5%)
Sodium: 1746 mg
Calories: 1796 without fish
Carbs: 176g (39%)
Fat: 77g (39%)
Protein: 151g (34%)
(1) Couto E, Boffetta P, Lagiou P, & Ferrari P et.al. Medierranean dietary pattern and cancer risk in the EPIC cohort. April 26, 2011. Br J Cancer 104(9): 1493-9. Retrieved March 11, 2013 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21468044.
(2) Mitrou P, Kipnis V, Thiebaut A, & Reedy J et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and prediction of all cause mortality in a US population. December 24, 2007. Arch Intern Med (3) 167(22): 2461-2468. Retrieved March 11, 2013, from http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=770019.
(4) USNews Health. Medierranean Diet-Sample Menu. Retrieved March 11, 2013, from http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mediterranean-diet/menu.
(5) Innocenzi, L. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Should we eat like our caveman ancestors? Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442471551.
(6) The Paleo Diet. Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from www.thepaleodiet.com.
(7) Life Expectancy-what is life expectancy. Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from http://www.news-medical.net/health/Life-Expectancy-What-is-Life-Expectancy.aspx.
(8) Harvard School of Public Health. Health gains from whole grains. 2013. Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/health-gains-from-whole-grains/#references.
(9) Office of Dietary Supplements: National Institutes of Health. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium. November 16, 2012. Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/.
(10) Clark, S. Body Building. What is the Paleo Diet? Dec 29, 2010. Retrieved on March 11, 2013, from http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/what-is-the-paleo-diet.html.
March is National Nutrition Month, and this year, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is urging Americans to “Get Your Plate In Shape.” With the help of the “My Plate” model, which replaced the Food Pyramid in June 2011, the experts are giving us a reminder of the healthy nutrition goals we have heard before:
Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
Make at least half of your grains whole grains
Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy
Vary your protein choices
Cut back on sodium and empty calories from solid fats and added sugars
So if we all know what to do, why do so many of us struggle not only to get our plates in shape, but also to keep them in shape? The problem for many of us is that we aren’t excited about making dietary changes, so we reluctantly begin following nutrition advice without a real plan.
Alternatively, if we take an active role in designing our own plates and developing our own implementation plans for change, we are setting ourselves up for the best chance of success. Here are a few tips to get started:
Analyze Your Plate: Take a look at what, when, and how much you eat every day (meals, snacks, and beverages included), and jot it down in a food journal. Consider the nutritional density of the foods you eat including the amount of carbohydrate and fiber, fat (including saturated or trans fat), protein, sodium, added sugar, and vitamins and minerals. Also make note of how you feel after each meal or snack (too full, still hungry, etc.).
With this information in front of you, you can identify the good food choices you make, as well as the choices that can be improved to create a more balanced nutrition plan that better meets your needs.
Redesign your Plate: There are plenty of generic diet plans created by magazine writers and celebrity trainers that will tell you exactly what to eat every day, but you are in the best position to decide what healthy foods work for you.
For example, your diet plan may tell you to have a spinach salad for lunch (a rich source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and Iron), but if you’d rather choke down tar than eat it, it’s not going to make you healthier. Following a diet plan that isn’t for you leaves you feeling frustrated and much more likely to cheat. Instead, consider consulting a doctor or personal trainer to help you design your plate, but make sure that you are the one in charge!
Adjust Your Plate One Item At A Time: Choosing specific, measurable, and manageable goals that you can accomplish in sequence may lead to to greater success than redesigning your plate all at once. For example, start by adding a one-cup serving of vegetables to every meal (as opposed to saying, “I need to eat more vegetables”). The following week, keep the vegetables that you found satisfying, and try adding some healthier protein options.
Another approach is to take a few of the traditional meals you eat often and determine how to make them just a little bit healthier. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new foods or preparation methods. Over time, this methodical approach to change will help you meet your nutritional goals, and you may actually enjoy the process!
What dietary changes have you made in the past that you still stick to today? What changes are you working on now?