This is one of the uncontested best diet plans for men—here’s how to optimize it for building muscle.

Diet fads come and go, but we’ve already learned what works—partly from a study begun in the ’50s that shed light on what kinds of lifestyles may be good for you. Called the Seven Countries Study, it included 12,763 men in four world regions and found that the diets of people residing near the Mediterranean Sea, plus healthful living, were linked with increased well-being.


The “Mediterranean diet” is less a set of restrictions on foods and methods of creating meals and more a fitness-lifestyle plan that consists of lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole-wheat grains; more olive oil, less butter; elimination of red meat; limited sweets; some wine; and low trans and saturated fats.


Today, the Med diet is still one of the best ways to eat and live well. Here’s how to tweak it to optimize muscle gain, too.


For strength gains, your main change to the Med diet should be in how much protein you eat. Typically, the emphasis is on having three or more weekly servings of fish/seafood and limiting red meat and replacing it with poultry so that about 15% of your calories come from protein. Various nutritionists recommend getting about 20% of your diet from protein to help build muscle.


Since a fundamental Mediterranean diet component is an emphasis on eating mostly plant-based foods and limiting red meat, you shouldn’t just add in more red meat to bump up the protein, says Heather R. Mangieri, R.D., C.S.S.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition in Pittsburgh, PA.


“Instead, guys should focus on getting more protein from the foods the diet promotes; poultry, fish, yogurt, cheese, and eggs should still be part of the daily eating plan.” To meet everyday protein needs, shoot for 25 to 30 grams of protein over six meals and snacks, which is easy to do using the diet’s main foods.


“Each meal should be a combination of proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and some healthy fats,” Mangieri says.


Healthy fats, both polyunsaturated (like omega-3 fatty acids) and monounsaturated (in olive oil and canola oil) add to the feeling of fullness you get from eating nuts, seeds, and oils, she explains. However, though most Med diet versions place few restrictions on which or how many nuts and seeds you eat because both contain healthy fats, they can be calorie-dense and may throw your macros off if you eat mindlessly.


Our suggestion: Stick with nuts like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. Pistachios are hands-down a good choice for health-conscious guys wanting to stay trim and fit. When you eat pistachios, you’re getting a lot for your effort: 49 nuts equals six grams of protein and about 160 calories. In-shell pistachios are also a great way to keep your nut consumption mindful, as discovered in a 2011 preliminary behavioral study in Appetite. The results, dubbed the “pistachio principle,” showed that snackers who left discarded shells in front of them all day may have benefited from the visual cue for portions: They reduced their calorie consumption by 18% over those whose shells were taken away at intervals throughout the day.


Another way you can modify the Mediterranean diet to better serve your goals is to choose higher-quality foods for all your daily requirements.


When selecting fish, go with a nutrient-dense fillet of wild Alaskan salmon, rather than a piece of farm-raised tilapia. Be sure to use fresh extra-virgin olive oil, as it’s the main fat component in the diet. And don’t be afraid to spice it up to really enjoy your meals. Some prominent Mediterranean spices are known to have antioxidant properties, including paprika, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and coriander.


Following diet trends can be tricky and treacherous for both your waistline and your wallet. Some require forking over cash for a book so you can follow complicated and convoluted plans; others are simpler but leave out foods that are nutrient-dense and great for reaching fitness and health goals.


The tried-and-true Mediterranean diet, though, with its basis in a regional lifestyle that’s evolved over thousands of years to create a fit and healthy population, is a great place to start. Some information for this article was provided by Wonderful Pistachios.


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