The Mediterranean Diet: Eat Your Way To Better Health

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But I just returned last week from a wonderful trip to Italy, soaking up all the local culture”from visiting churches that still stand beyond any imaginable expectations to experiencing the popular drink, the Spritz (a yummy drink made from Prosecco, Aperol and club soda; see the recipe here). I’m still basking in the experience, feeling a whole lot more enriched by the grandeur and beauty of the country and the relaxed pace of the Italians”with the taste of the incredibly fresh and wholesome food lingering on my palate.

Gotta love that healthy Mediterranean style of eating: a healthy meal enjoyed surrounded by family and friends”incomparable.

I’ve always been a devotee of healthy eating. Vegtables? I love them all (with the possible exception of okra. Anyone out there to convince me it’s good?). I never met a watermelon, nectarine or piece of fruit I didn’t like. Fish, with its tender, succulent flesh and earthy flavor, pleases my palate more than does beef. And grains (farro’s my fave) and beans (yum, chickpeas) of all kinds win my affection. A handful of nuts here, a glass of red wine there, and I’m happy.

Turns out it’s no accident that the Mediterranean diet has been lauded for being a genuinely healthy way of eating. It incorporates all the basics of healthy eating: fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains. Add some olive oil and you’re onto something.

Not only has research shown the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, but it’s also proven to reduce the incidence of cancer and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Here’s how it works. Imagine a pyramid. At the top (the smallest portion) are meats and sweets. Below that, poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt, which should be eaten in moderate portions, daily to weekly. Fish and seafood enjoy a wider berth; eat them often (at least two times a week). And then the pyramid opens beansup to bring in fruits, veggies, grains (mostly whole), olive oil, , nuts, legumes, seeds, herbs and spices. Every meal you eat should be based on these foods.

What changes can you make in your diet to move closer to the Mediterranean style of eating?

  • Eat primarily plant-based foods (like fruits and vegetables), whole grains, legumes and nuts.
  • Replace butter with healthy fats, like olive oil (but remember: it may be healthy, but watch your quantities: 1 tablespoon has 119 calories).
  • Replace salt with herbs and spices to flavor foods.
  • Limit red meat consumption to a few times a month. Make sure it’s lean and keep the portions small. Avoid high-fat processed meats like bacon and sausage.
  • Eat fish and poultry at least twice each week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout and herring are healthy options.
  • Make your grains whole grains. They contain all the essential parts and nutrients of the entire grain seed.
  • Drink red wine in moderation; no more than 5 ounces daily for women of all ages. (Teetotalers: this is totally optional! Grape juice and fresh grapes provide the same protective antioxidants found in wine.)
  • Eat bread either plain or dipped in olive oil”not smeared with butter or margarine.
  • Enjoy nuts but watch the quantity”though most of the fat in them is healthy, they do contain a lot of calories. Eat no more than a handful a day. Stay away from heavily salted, candied or honey-roasted varieties.
  • Include veggies and fruits in every meal. They also make easy and nutritious snacks between meals.
  • Make your dairy low fat. Switch to skim or fat-free milk and yogurt and low-fat cheeses.

If you’re curious about incorporating the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle, here’s a gift to you. Leave a comment below, and one reader’s name will be chosen at random to win The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, published by Idiot’s Guides and written by Denise DedeMed Hazime, who teaches how to cook through easy instructional videos on her website, A This handy cookbook includes over 200 recipes and is a terrific guide to get you on the road to better and more balanced health through easy and fun methods. I can’t wait to try the Bulgur Chickpea Pilaf!

Perhaps the world’s healthiest diet, the Mediterranean Diet is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. It features fish and poultry—lean sources of protein—over red meat, which contains more saturated fat. Red wine is consumed regularly but in moderate amounts.

Research suggests that the benefits of following a Mediterranean-style eating pattern may be many: improved weight loss, better control of blood glucose (sugar) levels and reduced risk of depression, to name a few. Eating like a Mediterranean has also been associated with reduced levels of inflammation, a risk factor for heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease

Use olive oil—a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats—as your primary fat for cooking and baking. A high-quality extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with balsamic vinegar is delicious for dipping bread and is a healthier alternative to butter (which is rich in the saturated fats associated with increased risk of heart disease). Other plant-based oils, such as canola or walnut oil, are also rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Swap out most of your red meat and get your protein from skinless chicken and turkey, fish, beans, nuts and other plants. By displacing red meat, you’ll lower your saturated-fat intake. Start by making a few small changes. Aim to eat fish of any kind—except for fried, of course—twice a week. Fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna are especially good choices: they are rich in omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat, linked with improved heart health.

Make the focus of the meal whole grains and vegetables and think of meat as a flavoring; for example, use a little diced pancetta in a tomato sauce for pasta. If you do have a hankering for a steak, it’s OK to indulge—just do so occasionally, choose a lean cut, like top loin, sirloin, flank steak and strip steak, and limit your portion size to 3 to 4 ounces.

Most people don’t get enough! Aim for 3 to 8 servings of vegetables a day. A serving size is 1/2 to 2 cups depending on the vegetable. Pick vegetables in a variety of colors to get a range of antioxidants and vitamins. Start your day out with a spinach and Cheddar omelet, have a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch and have roasted carrots and a green salad for dinner. Big green salads are a great way to include several vegetable servings at once, so treat yourself to one daily.

Experiment with “real” whole grains that are still in their “whole” form and haven’t been refined. Quinoa, a grain that was a staple in the ancient Incas’ diet, cooks up in just 20 minutes, making it a great side dish for weeknight meals. Barley is full of fiber and it’s filling: pair it with mushrooms for a steamy, satisfying soup. A hot bowl of oatmeal is perfect for breakfast on a cold winter morning.

Even popcorn is a whole grain—just keep it healthy by eating air-popped corn and forgo the butter (try a drizzle of olive oil instead). Supplement your intake with other whole-grain products, like whole-wheat bread and pasta. Look for the term “whole” or “whole grain” on the food package and in the ingredient list—it should be listed as the first ingredient. But if you still find it too hard to make the switch from your old refined favorites, phase in a whole grain by using whole-grain blends of pastas and rice or mixing whole grains half-and-half with a refined one (like half whole-wheat pasta and half white).

Snack on a handful of almonds, walnuts or sunflower seeds in place of chips, cookies or other processed snack foods, which are often loaded with sugars, saturated fat and trans fats. Calcium-rich low-fat cheese or low-fat and nonfat plain yogurt with fresh fruit are other healthy and portable snacks.

Generally a good source of fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, fresh fruit is a healthy way to indulge your sweet tooth. If it helps you to eat more, add a little sugar—drizzle slices of pear with honey or sprinkle a little brown sugar on grapefruit. Keep fresh fruit visible at home and keep a piece or two at work so you have a healthful snack when your stomach starts growling. Lots of grocery stores stock exotic fruit—pick a new one to try each week and expand your fruit horizons.

Research indicates that people who drink moderately are less likely to have heart disease than those who abstain. Alcohol appears to raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Wine, in particular, “thins” the blood (making it less prone to clotting) and also contains antioxidants that prevent your arteries from taking up LDL cholesterol, a process that can lead to plaque buildup. Remember, “1 drink” equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 11/2 ounces of liquor.

Eating like a Mediterranean is as much lifestyle as it is diet. Instead of gobbling your meal in front of the TV, slow down and sit down at the table with your family and friends to savor what you’re eating. Not only will you enjoy your company and your food, eating slowly allows you to tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. You’re more apt to eat just until you’re satisfied than until you’re busting-at-the-seams full.

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