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Omaha Magazine

The Mediterranean (Never Say) Die-t: An Age-Old Approach to Eating and Lifestyle

May 28, 2020 10:04AM ● By Jenna Gabrial Gallagher

One of the first things to understand about the Mediterranean diet-which has long been touted by experts as a way to decrease the risks of chronic illnesses and increase longevity-is that it’s not a really a diet at all. Unlike many trendy eating regimens with best-selling books, daily menu plans, and dedicated online communities that users pay to subscribe to, the Mediterranean diet is really just a set of guidelines.

“Basically, the Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern based on extensive research that’s been done on the people who live in the Mediterranean region, what they eat, and their lifestyle,” said Martha Nepper, Ph.D., RDN, LMNT, CDE, of Methodist Center for Diabetes and Nutritional Health. The registered dietitian continued, “It really emphasizes an increase in plant-based foods and fruits and vegetables, non-refined grains, fewer fatty meats, more fish, and foods with Omega 3 fatty acids, along with staying physically active throughout the day.”

“It’s mainly about eating close to nature, instead of (eating) a lot of processed foods or foods high in saturated fats and sugar, which cause inflammation,” said Elicia Briggs, certified nutritionist at Nutrition Pros in Midtown and West Omaha, adding that inflammation raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and even Parkinson’s and dementia. “Even if you’re genetically predisposed to some of these chronic conditions, adopting a Mediterranean diet can help you not express them as readily. It’s a lot more effective than just hoping and praying. Plus, it helps with anxiety and depression, better sleep, and just clearing away the clouds so you have less brain fog.”

While they’d love everyone to be lifelong adherents to this style of eating, Nepper and Briggs agree that it’s never too late to start. In fact, even for older adults some benefits start to become apparent within the first week. “My oldest client is 75 years old,” Briggs said. “After her husband passed away, she found that she was eating a whole sleeve of crackers without even realizing she was doing it. But as soon as she started eating an anti-inflammatory diet, her energy got better and she felt happier. Over time, she lost 30 pounds, but compared to the health benefits, that’s just a happy side effect.”

“There’s no time like the present,” Nepper said, although she recommends that older adults, especially those who are already following a restricted diet, seek the assistance of a registered dietician before getting started. “Start small, even if it’s just having a piece of fruit and glass of milk before a meal and replacing your regular dessert with fruit, and then you can build up. An improved diet and active lifestyle will improve your quality of life and your chances for a more successful recovery if you do get sick.”

Both she and Briggs stress the importance of staying physically and socially active as well. “One of the things that will kill us most quickly is just sitting,” Briggs said. “You don’t have to do CrossFit, but you do need to move most days of the week, if not every day. Also, keep connecting to the outside world. Ask a friend out to lunch. And if you can’t do that, listen to a podcast or FaceTime with someone. Eat nutrient-rich food about 80-90% of the time, but don’t get too stressed about the numbers. The fun stuff has its place once or twice a week. The biggest thing that I tell my clients is to enjoy the balance.” 

This article first appeared in the "60 Plus" section of the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine