As I’ve written before, although most people’s lipid numbers improve across the board, some people get interesting cholesterol responses to Primal ketogenic diets. LDL skyrockets, even LDL particle number. The jury’s out on whether or not they indicate negative health concerns or if keto dieters are a special breed that hasn’t received enough study. (There may be a few genetic profiles, such as APOE4 carriers, that react differently to certain dietary inputs.) Either way some people just want their cholesterol numbers to look good in a conventional way. These days, whenever I run into someone in the real world with these or similar concerns, I tell them to try “Mediterranean keto.”
What is that, anyway?
The Mediterranean diet can mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask. On one side, you have the folks who make the ridiculous claim that the Mediterranean diet consisted of pasta, low-fat dairy, beans, green veggies, seed oils with a “drizzle or two” of extra virgin olive oil for good measure, a handfuls of nuts, and a single filet of sardine once every three days. They avoided salt and red meat and full-fat cheese, somehow ignoring the vast body of salt water on their shores and the large population of sheep and goats roaming the land. I guess that livestock is only there to keep the weeds down.
On the other side, you have the people claiming that the true Mediterranean diet consisted of fatty lamb, hard cheeses, fish filets dripping with oil, skins of homemade red wine, cured meats, endless olives, vegetables at will, and the occasional legume bathing in mutton juices and a tiny piece of bread crust submerged in extra virgin olive oil.
This is probably closer to the truth, but both are a bit hyperbolic.
It also depends on where you’re looking. The Mediterranean is a big sea. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Crete, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and even France are all technically Mediterranean countries. Are their diets identical? No. Are there common threads running through their respective cuisines? Yes.
- Olive oil
- Wine (excepting Muslim dietary practices)
- Grains and legumes (Yes, they do eat beans and pasta and bread, although perhaps not in the quantities the grain-addicted would prefer)
And that’s not even mentioning all the various social, spiritual, and lifestyle components of the Mediterranean way of life. The sun, the walking, the hills, the family connections, the religious leanings. Today’s label is all about the diet.
The Mediterranean keto diet emphasizes olive oil, fish, cheese, meat, low-carb vegetables, and red wine. In other words, it takes all the keto-compliant foods readily available to denizens of the Mediterranean and constructs a nutrient-dense diet out of them.
And you know what? It seems to work really well.
In one of the most impressive studies, people with severe obesity and metabolic syndrome tried a Mediterranean keto diet for 12 weeks. That’s three months.
Here’s what the diet consisted of:
- No calorie counting
- Unlimited protein
- Lots of fish. At least (and often more than) four days a week, subjects ate over a kilogram of fish each day, mostly sardines, trout, mackerel, and salmon. On the other days, they got their protein from shellfish, meat, fowl, eggs, and cheese.
- Lots of omega-3s. Subjects were getting over 15 grams of omega-3s on their fish days and supplementing with 9 grams of salmon oil on their non-fish days.
- At least 200-400 mL of red wine a day, 100-200 mL at lunch and dinner. That’s up to over half a bottle.
- At least 30 mL (2 tablespoons) of olive oil a day, 10 mL per meal.
- Maximum two portions of salad and one portion of low-carb vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, etc) per day.
- A comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement covering all the basics.
What happened to these subjects after 12 weeks on this Mediterranean keto diet regimen?
- They lost 30+ pounds.
- Their BMIs dropped from almost 37 to 31.5, from the middle of class 2 obesity to the bottom of class 1 obesity.
- They lost 16 centimeters, or 6 inches, from their waist.
- Fasting blood sugar dropped from 118 (pre-diabetic) to 91 (ideal).
- Triglycerides dropped from 224 to 109.
- HDL increased from 44 to 58.
- They went from prehypertensive to normotensive.
- Their liver enzymes and liver fat reduced and in some cases completely resolved.
- All 22 subjects started the study with metabolic syndrome and ended it without metabolic syndrome.
That last bit is pretty interesting. Note that the majority of the participants were still obese (BMI over 30) by the end of the study, yet every single one had cured their metabolic syndrome. Sure, they lost weight, and the trend was fantastic and heading down, but they weren’t there yet. Something about the diet itself was incredibly powerful.
The only limitation? It was a pilot study, not a randomized controlled trial pitting the Mediterranean keto diet against a control diet in real time. But considering that these people were coming off control diets—which clearly weren’t working for them—and onto the Mediterranean keto diet, it has more real-world power than you might think. You can bet the participants weren’t complaining about a lack of placebo control.
I’m not saying this is the best incarnation of all the potential Mediterranean keto diets out there. But if you’re having mixed metabolic results from the keto diet and looking for a ketogenic option with more monounsaturated fat and omega-3s, it’s the one that has some clinical research behind it. It’s one that doesn’t possess any glaring red flags.
This is also a form of ketogenic dieting that most people will view as “healthy.” It can be hard to get people to accept that putting real cream in their coffee and steak on their plates is good for them, even if they’re approaching death’s door eating what they’ve always eaten. It’s not so hard to get people on board with a diet of olive oil, fish, red wine, and salad. That’s no small feature.
In the end, the ketogenic Mediterranean diet appears to be an effective way to treat metabolic syndrome without scaring people away. For that reason, it might be a good option to try if you’re having issues with cardiovascular markers, blood sugar, hypertension, body fat, or any of the components that make up the metabolic syndrome.
What do you think of the Mediterranean keto diet? Think you could stick to it?
Pérez-guisado J, Muñoz-serrano A. A pilot study of the Spanish Ketogenic Mediterranean Diet: an effective therapy for the metabolic syndrome. J Med Food. 2011;14(7-8):681-7.
Pérez-guisado J, Muñoz-serrano A. The effect of the Spanish Ketogenic Mediterranean Diet on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. J Med Food. 2011;14(7-8):677-80.