If, like me, you’re not lucky enough to be jetting off to the sunny warmth of the French Riviera or Greece this winter, that doesn’t mean we have to lose out completely. Yes, I’m talking food here—we can cook like we’re in the Mediterranean, enjoying their tasty cuisine and giving our winter-chilled bodies a nutrition boost, too.
What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?
The traditional diet of the cultures located near the Mediterranean Sea is predominantly vegetarian, featuring lots of fresh produce, legumes and a good dose of olive oil. Of course, just as there are numerous countries that border the Mediterranean, there is no one “Mediterranean Diet.” However, there are several dietary commonalities among these cultures’ food habits:
- use of olive oil as the main fat
- a variety of vegetables, including leafy greens, consumed several times a day
- legumes (such as soy, beans and peas)
- whole grains (not just bread)
- seafood eaten at least twice a week
- nuts and dried fruit as snacks several times per week
- cheese several times per week
- moderate amounts of red wine
- red meat rarely (several times per month)
- lunch/cured/deli meat very rarely
- sweets (cakes, candy, pastries) for special occasions only
What’s so healthy about the Mediterranean diet?
The people of the Mediterranean region (and the island of Crete in particular) tend to live longer and have lower rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes than folks in other areas of the world, and their diet is thought to be a major reason why. Most of the research has been conducted with people who live in the Mediterranean region includes subjects who are older, or who have specific health conditions, making the results—though no less important—less applicable to younger, healthy adults who may not have eaten a Mediterranean-style diet their entire lives. Last winter however, a study was published that compared Mediterranean-style eating habits to a variety of cardiovascular risk factors in a group of young, active US adults. The type of diet showed benefits even for this younger group of subjects. Those who adhered to a Mediterranean diet the closest had:
- fewer indicators of metabolic syndrome
- significantly higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) and lower LDL cholesterol levels (the “bad” kind)
- less weight gain over a 5-year period, and less likely to be obese
And these results held true despite the fact that the group studied did not drink much red wine (they preferred beer). Adopting this type of eating plan in midlife also seems to be protective against chronic diseases, as evidenced by data gleaned from the Nurse’s Health Study population, published in 2013. Other purported bennies from eating Mediterranean style include improvements in memory and cognition, as well as Alzheimer’s disease prevention.
If you’d like to reap some of these health benefits and incorporate more Mediterranean diet-style meals into your weekly rotation, consider signing up for a Mediterranean cooking class, or teach yourself using a new Mediterranean cookbook (there are many to choose from). It’s a flexible cuisine, even for novice cooks. To get you started in the Mediterranean groove, consider adopting these tips:
- Make friends with olive oil for cooking, not just for salad dressing.
- Eat two servings of fish per week (not fried, though). Even canned tuna counts, but it’s best to mix it up in the seafood department. Oily fish such as salmon or sardines are great choices since they’re rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Need sardine ideas? Check out this resource from the Mediterranean Food Alliance.
- Limit red meat as much as possible. When you do have it, make it lean and keep the portion to 4 ounces or less.
- Eat bean-based dishes (or soups with beans) a couple times a week.
- Eat a green salad every day, and vary the types of greens you use in it—there are many ready-made greens combinations on the market today, so there’s no need to eat the same salad all the time. Then pile on additional veggies.
- Sub a handful of nuts (pistachios, walnuts, almonds are good choices) for two of your less-healthful snacks each week. Then keep the portion to about 1- 1 ½ ounces, roughly a generous handful.