By Michelle Pugle
The “green” Mediterranean diet may be even healthier for you than the traditional Mediterranean diet. That’s according to a new study published online in the journal Heart.
Researchers said they found that people who consumed higher amounts of plant-based proteins and less red meat and poultry experienced increased cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.
The researchers randomly assigned 294 sedentary people with moderate obesity (defined as a BMI of 31) into three dietary groups. A significant majority of participants were male. Their average age was 51.
The first group received guidance on boosting physical activity and basic guidelines for achieving a healthy diet.
The second group received the same physical activity guidance plus advice on following a calorie-restricted, traditional Mediterranean diet. Their menu was low in simple carbohydrates, rich in vegetables, and with poultry and fish replacing red meat.
The third group received all of the above, plus 3 to 4 cups of green tea as well as 28 grams of walnuts per day. Their daily menu also included 100 grams of frozen Wolffia globosa (cultivated Mankai strain) cubes, a high protein form of the aquatic plant duckweed.
The cubes were taken as a green plant-based protein shake as a partial substitute for animal protein.
The study authors said in a press release that their findings suggest further limiting meat intake while increasing plant-based, protein-rich foods may benefit the cardiometabolic state even more. And it may reduce cardiovascular risk beyond the known beneficial effects of the traditional Mediterranean diet.
Participants on either type of Mediterranean diet lost more weight. The green Med group lost a total of 6.2 kilograms, the traditional Mediterranean diet group lost 5.4 kilograms, and the healthy diet group lost 1.5 kilograms.
Waist circumference shrank by an average of 8.6 centimeters among those on the green Med diet compared with 6.8 centimeters for those on the Mediterranean diet and 4.3 centimeters for those on the healthy diet.
The green Med group also saw the greatest reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol with a nearly 4 percent decrease.
The equivalent figures were nearly 1 percent for those in the Mediterranean diet group and even less than that for those in the healthy diet group.
Participants following Mediterranean-based diets also reaped additional health benefits that included decreases in diastolic blood pressure, insulin resistance, and an important marker of inflammation, C-reactive protein, which has an essential role in artery hardening.
The ratio of HDL (good) cholesterol to LDL (bad) cholesterol also increased.
Nutrition experts weigh in
The Mediterranean diet is already known for its potential at reducing the risk of heart disease as well as stroke, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.
It boils down to the polyphenols found in plant matter. Andy De Santis, a registered dietitian with a master’s in public health nutrition, said, “Polyphenols are widely renowned for their potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities, and recent research suggests they may also have ‘prebiotic’ effects in our gut, whereby they act as a source of sustenance for our healthy gut bacteria.”
“In other words, you want plenty of polyphenol-containing foods in your diet,” he told Healthline.
Experts say you may also want to alter your protein consumption methods. “The traditional Med diet emphasizes fish and seafood as the primary animal protein source with a smaller role allotted to poultry, eggs, and dairy, and an even smaller role allotted to red meat,” De Santis said.
“The green Med diet appears to remove red meat completely and encourage the other animal protein sources as well as the plant-based proteins at the foundation of the diet (nuts, seeds, legumes) to take its place,” he said.
“This includes processed red meats like salami, sausage, hot dogs, and so on, which are the types of red meat most often associated with negative health consequencesbecause of their high levels of sodium, preservatives, and their saturated fat content,” De Santis said.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a licensed, registered dietitian and author of “Skinny Liver,” sees the study’s takeaway the same way. “The original version allows for chicken and fish, while this one seems to be keeping with the traditional components of the Mediterranean diet while opting for a more strict vegetarian approach,” she told Healthline.
“The primary sources of plant protein, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy-based foods, offer unique benefits that are simply not found in animal foods,” he added.
Nuts make a big difference. “People who consume more nuts, seeds, and legumes gain serious health benefits from doing so, owing to the healthy fats, dietary fiber, antioxidants, and wide array of vitamins/minerals,” De Santis said.
“With that being said, no one is saying you have to drop all animal protein to be healthy,” he noted. “You should, however, think about the balance between plant and animal protein consumption over your life course.”
There are some health benefits to meat. “For most people, there is some balancing work to be done there,” De Santis said. “But animal protein, aside from being widely enjoyed, also has nutritional value particularly relating to its iron, protein, and B12 content.”
“Fish, in particular, being rich in the elusive vitamin D and omega-3s, is a very useful food,” he added.
With that being said, there are multiple ways to increase polyphenols and plant-based proteins on a daily basis.
De Santis said that seasonings, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, tea, wine, and whole grains like wheat and rye offer the polyphenols associated with the positive effects on cardiovascular and metabolic health found in the study.
Kirkpatrick said she recommends people consume more whole soy, like tempeh and tofu, as well as beans and lentils, nutritional yeast, nuts, and spirulina (a nutrient-dense, nontoxic, blue-green algae).
“We do need [these foods] since protein is an essential component to good health, including maintaining muscle, providing a source of energy, and maintaining the building blocks of all cells,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said meal examples include a plate of hummus, whole wheat pita and falafel, bean-based pasta with vegan pesto or basic tomato sauce, or tahini with roasted veggies and quinoa.