To say that my eating habits are horrible would make them sound better than they really are. (I wish I was joking.) I’ve never had the best relationship with food. I’ve mastered every shortcut and quick fix out there to quash hunger and spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. Prepackaged foods and snack bars? Yeah, I live on those.
Not surprisingly, my perpetual avoidance of everything cooking is taking its toll: I’m in my early thirties, yet feel like I should invest in a rocking chair and take up knitting. I don’t just need to eat healthier and nix empty calories for the sake of my waistline (which has, well, ballooned)—I need to revamp my entire attitude toward food.
Hence why I decided to take the Mediterranean diet for a spin. Chosen as 2018’s “Best Diet Overall” and “Easiest Diet to Follow” by U.S. News and World Report, this anti-deprivation diet is rich in veggies, fruits, nuts, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. Red wine is cool in moderation (one glass per day), as are red meat and sweets (twice per month or so). No foods or food groups are off the table—pun totally intended. The diet also promotes the social and mindful aspects of enjoying food, like sitting down to meals (as opposed to hoovering grub in front of the TV like I normally do), which is really cool.
Although weight loss isn’t the primary intent of the Mediterranean diet, it's likely you'll lose weight, says registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman. Putting the spotlight on fresh, whole foods alone can lead to weight loss, since you’re no longer relying on packaged foods that are often laden in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy sources of fat, she says. Plus, consuming a variety of plant-based proteins and complex, whole-grain carbs doesn’t just keep your blood sugar stable, but helps you feel fuller for longer, lowering the odds that you’ll overeat. (Peace out, cravings!)
The weight-loss perks of the Mediterranean diet are also backed by science: A 2016 study published in the journal The Lancet found that participants who went on a Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat one, while a 2015 study published in The American Journal of Medicine found that the Mediterranean diet is just as effective for long-term weight loss as going low carb.
So, after an initial weigh-in, I decided to get my ass into the kitchen and turn things around with the Mediterranean diet.
1. THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS DIET CAN ALSO FEEL LIKE THE WORST
There are no hard-and-fast rules to following the Mediterranean diet, only general guidelines—which can be both a blessing and a curse. You’re completely on your own to figure out how many calories you should eat to lose weight, how you’ll plan and execute your meals and snacks, and what you’ll do to stay active. This makes it way easier to customise the diet to suit your lifestyle, but it can feel overwhelming if, like me, you’re starting from scratch (and your lifestyle’s a disaster).
And because there’s no end to the recipes that can fit into the Mediterranean diet framework, hunting down meal ideas can be a huge time-suck if you’re not careful. So as to not spend the rest of my life browsing for recipes online, I consolidated my search by downloading a bevy of Mediterranean diet cookbooks and bookmarking the recipes that looked the yummiest. Two of my faves: The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners and The Mediterranean Diet for Every Day. The latter also featured a list of 50- and 100-calorie snack ideas, which I printed out (and stuck to the fridge) for between-meal inspiration.
2. THE LEARNING CURVE WAS STEEP (BUT WORTH IT)
“Because the Mediterranean diet relies on mostly fresh foods and your ability to prepare them, a person with limited kitchen skills may have a steep learning curve when starting this diet,” says registered dietitian Deborah Malkoff-Cohen. I most definitely qualify as someone with "limited kitchen skills," so I opted for recipes that contained as few ingredients as possible—apple cinnamon oatmeal, lemon orzo tuna salad, and fettuccine with parmesan garlic sauce, among others. I also chose recipes that had as many overlapping ingredients as possible so that food prep wouldn’t be as much of a hassle. It decreased the odds that I’d flake out on the diet and go back to my quick-fix ways.
It wasn’t so much learning different cooking techniques that I found challenging, since the recipes I chose only involved super-basic ones like sautéing, boiling, and baking. (Though I did learn how to bread a mean fish!)
My challenges were more with getting the cook times right (my stove seemed to cook dishes way slower than the times recommended in the recipes), learning to recognise when certain foods like pasta were “done," and pairing main courses and sides in such a way that the process of making them at the same time was harmonious. For example, making a salad or sautéing veggies while the main course is roasting in the oven, instead of trying to maintain multiple burners of food.
I bought everything fresh—no pre-packaged or frozen anything, which was way outside my comfort zone. Prepping took forever (I’m the world’s slowest chopper!), but it became easier as the diet went on, since after the initial chopping extravaganza, you only have to prep what you run out of as you go along.
That’s not to say all shortcuts to save time on prep are unhealthy (I just tend to gravitate toward them). “These days, you can easily find healthy frozen meals to help you live a Mediterranean lifestyle if cooking from scratch seems too daunting and stressful,” says Beckerman. “You can even buy frozen quinoa and brown rice in order to bulk up your whole-grain consumption.” The trick is to avoid frozen meals with coating, added sugar, or sauces, she says. Aim for the baked or steamed packages and simply add olive oil and lemon to your dish for a Mediterranean twist.
The biggest adjustment I experienced was making homemade snacks instead of buying pre-packaged, but it was a change I’d been wanting to make for a while. The number-one thing that wreaks havoc on my eating habits is when I get hungry right in the middle of work. Not wanting to break my focus, I always turn to less-than-stellar grub to see me through. This time around, I used my trusty snack list. On paper, the snacks sounded boring, their simplicity too good to be true—an apple with almond butter, a hard-boiled egg, 30 shelled pistachios, a sliced tomato with grated parmesan—but not only did they taste better than my go-to snacks of yore, they kept me satisfied straight-up until mealtime (and for a fraction of the calories I would’ve downed had I turned to a pre-packaged snack).
At first, it was super-challenging to keep the kitchen clean and organized. The more the dishes piled up, the less I wanted to make meals (after all, more meals equals more mess). By the end of the first week, I started doing the whole clean-as-I-go thing to maintain the kitchen as I cooked, and it made all the difference. I also enjoyed each meal even more, because I knew I didn’t have a mess waiting for me once I was done eating.
But the most surprising thing I learned? In putting more effort into my eating habits, I ultimately spent less time in the kitchen than when I’d do everything possible to avoid it. (Mind. Blown.) Because the foods I was eating kept me full for (way) longer than the instant-gratification eats I’d usually turn to, it also freed my mind to focus on other things—I was no longer obsessing over which shortcut I should use next to stave off the hunger pangs that were inevitable.
3. I FELT LIKE A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PERSON
I started noticing physical and mental improvements immediately, beginning on day two of the diet. I woke up feeling rested and my body felt like it was actually functioning properly—no queasiness, no hanger, no foaming at the mouth for a cherry cheese danish.
By day two, my usual caffeine and sugar cravings were nowhere to be found. Without even trying, I was drinking one-quarter of the coffee I usually would—and realised that without coffee, I barely drink anything to stay hydrated! I ended up replacing my coffee habit with a fruit-infused water habit almost immediately. As my eating and hydration habits improved, my energy levels increased, my brain fog lifted, and my perma-bloated gut deflated, all within the first week.
This doesn’t mean I never splurged, obvi: I did indulge in the occasional beer, and my mum’s place is always a minefield of pastries, cakes, and cookies. (Me like cookies.)
Changing up my eating habits also quashed many of the anxiety symptoms I usually experience (stormy insides, monkey mind, neurotic thoughts), and it didn’t take long for me to discover that, underneath those distracting symptoms, was a hella exhausted body. It was like coming down from the world’s longest adrenaline rush, and the crash felt glorious. The quality of my sleep improved tenfold—I didn’t feel wired, my mind wasn’t racing, and I actually fell asleep not long after my head hit the pillow.
My life still contained the same amount of stress, yet instead of my body and mind acting like a bickering married couple, my body was all, “We’ve got this,” and my mind was all, “Indubitably.” Going Mediterranean means eating more foods that are rich in vitamin D, magnesium, folate, and fatty acids, to name a few. “All of these nutrients play a vital role in hormone and chemical nerve regulation in our brain, which in turn, can drastically influence and dictate our moods and how we think,” says Beckerman. I was so jazzed that I wanted to find a meadow to twirl in.
4. IT’S SUPER EASY TO TWEAK THE DIET AS YOU GO ALONG
As you get to know your eating preferences and patterns, this is a diet that can be adjusted to suit you: Even though I’d spent an entire weekend carefully crafting a meal plan, I stopped following it almost immediately, after realising that I’m more of an intuitive eater. (I had a Mediterranean omelette scheduled for Tuesday’s breakfast, but wanted wild berry breakfast oats instead.)
It could be my commitment phobia talking, but I find meal planning to be too rigid. It sucks the enjoyment out of something I already don’t enjoy, so I decided from then on to buy ingredients for a week’s worth of recipes, but not schedule which recipes I’d make on what days—rather, I’d see what I feel like eating in the moment and go from there.
And because this diet doesn’t feel like a diet, I didn’t have those twinges of guilt and self-loathing that typically come from “cheating” on more rigid weight-loss plans. I was no longer experiencing cravings that, depending on the day, felt impossible to ignore. As such, I indulged because I wanted to, not because I was giving into temptation—which made doing so hella satisfying (and way easier to stay on track).
5. MY GROCERY BILL WENT THROUGH THE ROOF
Even with making multiple servings and choosing recipes that had overlapping ingredients, I spent more on groceries in one week than I normally do in three. (After telling me my total, the cashier had to fan me with a notepad.) I can’t say I was surprised—staples like olive oils, vinegars, nuts, seeds, and grains cost a small fortune, but once purchased, you won’t have to buy them again for quite some time. I considered them an investment in my future health, and fantasised about the future medical expenses I was saving myself (while waiting for my panic attack to subside).
There are plenty of things you can do to make the Mediterranean diet more budget-friendly, says Malkoff-Cohen. Buying frozen fruits, vegetables, and proteins can help cut costs and reduce food waste, as well as batch cooking and freezing in portions. “You can also buy nuts and seeds in bulk and store them in the fridge (for up to six months) or freezer (for up to one year), where they are unaffected by fluctuating temperatures,” she says.
Another thing that I’ve started doing is shopping the flyer—checking out what’s on sale first, then choosing my recipes for the following week based on the best deals.
6. STAYING THE COURSE WAS STILL A GRIND
The ironic (and straight-up frustrating) part about week two was that even though I was getting into a groove with my snazzy new eating habits and feeling better than ever, I found myself battling the very real urge to self-destruct and go back to my unhealthy ways.
I feel like my biggest mistake was jumping in too quickly—instead of going from never spending time in the kitchen to practically moving my office in there (kidding, but still), I should’ve chosen a pace that I was more comfortable with. Baby steps is more my speed.
But even when you do veer off course from time to time (like when I practically made out with a packet of Tim Tams), this is one of those rare diets where you don’t feel like an epic failure for doing so. I did struggle to stay on track during week two, but tried not to judge myself when I relapsed (my go-to mantra: progress, not perfection). I’d make a smoothie as a bat signal to my brain that it was time to get a grip—minty peach and hemp heart, raspberry avocado chia, peach sunrise—and pick up right where I left off after each stumble.
7. THE VERDICT
The benefits of this diet go way beyond a slimmer waistline. The impact the Mediterranean diet has had on me, both physically and emotionally, has been life-changing. My body and I haven’t gotten along like this since, well, ever. I still don’t enjoy cooking (or eating), but I can now tolerate it, which is huge.
I can’t speak to the impact this diet had on my workouts, since the only thing worse than my eating habits are my exercise habits. (Unless grating parmesan counts as a workout?) But I can speak to how stress, anxiety, and depression aren’t dictating what and how much I eat anymore. And since the quality of my sleep has (drastically) improved, I haven’t been using coffee and sugar as crutches to get through the day.
I’m definitely going to stay on this diet for the long haul—though, for both financial and emotional reasons, I’m going to go at a slower pace, gradually building up my recipe repertoire and the kitchen staples that go with them.
The fact that I also lost a couple of kilograms during this two-week adventure—without restrictions, deprivation, or obsessing over portions—was icing on the cake (that I’m not even craving anymore).
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US