Mediterranean Diet: What It Is and Why It’s So Healthy – Runner’s World

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Nutrition is a key component of solid training and run performance. You need foods that nourish you, fuel you, and help you recover after a run to keep clocking miles day after day. When deciding what foods to eat and figuring out the best meals for you and your workouts, you may have come across the often praised eating plan known as the Mediterranean diet.

For the seventh year in a row, the Mediterranean diet scored the number-one spot for best overall diet by U.S. News and World Report. While this way of eating brings in many health benefits, can it also help you perform at your best?

To answer that and all your questions about the Mediterranean diet, we tapped Marisa Moore, RDN, culinary and integrative dietitian, and Lori Russell, RDN, pediatric dietitian at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is not actually a “diet” that you try out for a little while to achieve short-term health goals. Instead, it’s intended to be a lifestyle shift of your eating habits.

“Contrary to popular belief, there’s no one Mediterranean diet. Instead, this way of eating incorporates the foods from the Mediterranean region including countries from Spain to Greece to Tunisia, for example,” says Moore.

Aside from the food, the lifestyle also includes a moderate intake of wine and plenty of physical activity, Moore adds.

Why is the Mediterranean diet considered to be so healthy?

In a 2022 review of clinical trials published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found the Mediterranean way of eating could be most beneficial for fighting cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases, and cancer. These beneficial effects, according to the researchers, are likely due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the diet.

Beyond that, many studies on the Mediterranean diet also show it may have a positive effect on heart health, cognitive function, and aging. Eating this way has even been linked to improving hearing loss and depression. It may also help lower risk or progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and type 2 diabetes, says Russell.

“There are many reasons that could explain this, including high fiber and antioxidants from abundant fruits and vegetables, the omega-3s from seafood, and good fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil,” says Moore. (Those good fats mean mono- and polyunsaturated options.)

What foods can you eat on the Mediterranean diet?

The basic concept of the diet is to limit heavily processed foods, red meat, and refined grains. Moore encourages her clients to add in a variety of wholesome foods.

For those looking to get started on the Mediterranean diet or eat healthier overall, Moore suggests starting by adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet—and they can be fresh or frozen, whatever you have access to.

Then, experiment with different types of seafood. For example, sardines are inexpensive and packed with omega-3 fats. If that’s not a fit for your taste preferences, you can try salmon.

For an energizing, sweet, and crunchy snack, try almond-stuffed dates, says Moore. The crunchy almonds deliver a dose of mono- and polyunsaturated fats plus plant protein and fiber for lasting energy—two keys to a satisfying snack.

How does the Mediterranean diet benefit runners?

This way of eating allows for plenty of carbohydrates in a runner’s diet, which provide quick-burning fuel athletes need. It’s also accessible and flavorful, and there are no strict calorie restrictions, says Moore.

“The boost to heart health and the cardiovascular system as a whole is the biggest benefit for athletes,” says Russell.

As for performance, one small study found that short-term adherence to this way of eating compared to eating a standard Western diet improved 5K times.

The high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants obtained from eating the Mediterranean way can also potentially boost endurance energy and a person’s ability to stay mentally strong in performance, says Russell. The high antioxidant content may also help speed recovery after your workouts.

Finally, according to a 2023 study published in Nutrition Research and Practice, when 15 professional male athletes, ages 13 to 18, followed the Mediterranean diet for 15 days, they improved in a variety of skills, including vertical jump, hand grip strength, and a 20-meter shuttle run, and their perceived level of fatigue decreased during the run. The researchers concluded that the Mediterranean diet is a reliable and safe way for athletes to support aerobic performance and strength gains.

Does the Mediterranean diet work for everyone?

Those with rare metabolic disease or epilepsy might benefit more from a different therapeutic diet, says Russell. For most anyone else, eating in a Mediterranean way is appropriate as it is flexible and can be adapted to fit any dietary preference including plant-based eating, gluten-free, or dairy-free diets.

And while the Mediterranean diet is a very flexible option, each person should evaluate whether it’s the best fit for their lifestyle, energy, and nutrition needs, says Moore.

Jordan Smith is a writer and editor with over 5 years of experience reporting on health and fitness news and trends. She is a published author, studying for her personal trainer certification, and over the past year became an unintentional Coronavirus expert. She has previously worked at Health, Inc., and 605 Magazine and was the editor-in-chief of her collegiate newspaper. Her love of all things outdoors came from growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Headshot of Namrita Brooke, Ph.D., R.D.N.

 Dr. Namrita Brooke is a full-time endurance sport coach and sport nutritionist advising active individuals and amateurs to professional athletes. She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Movement Sciences and Health at University of West Florida. Professionally, she also serves on the Board of Editors of the Sports Nutrition Care Manual and remains involved in nutrition and exercise-related research, student mentorship, and coach development. Namrita’s personal athletic experience ranges from ultra-endurance mountain biking to off-road triathlon, cross-country mountain bike racing, gravel cycling, duathlon, cyclocross, running, and trail running. Her research background includes hydration and sports drink research, and the interaction of nutrition, physical activity, and the brain. 

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