An exciting new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has confirmed that regardless of calories, people who are at risk for cardiovascular disease can improve their health by following a Mediterranean-type diet . We’ve known for years that people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea enjoy longer, healthier lives and health experts attribute much of this phenomenon to their traditional diet…one that is rich in healthy fats, and low in refined carbohydrates.
A Mediterranean style of living describes the types of foods to eat most frequently. Mediterranean peoples of Southern France and Italy, Greece, Crete, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Northern Africa, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea enjoy a temperate climate, with a long growing season. Each country’s cuisine is unique, but similar in their ingredients…it’s the combinations and flavors that make each country’s cuisine distinct…and delicious. Instead of butter, fatty meats, hydrogenated fats and processed foods that overwhelm us and contribute to obesity, eating a Mediterranean diet means enjoying fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and goat’s milk cheeses; legumes and dried beans; seeds, nuts and all types of fish from the ever-present sea, most days of the week. Red meat is eaten infrequently, and more likely to include poultry, lamb and goat than hamburger or pork. Often wine completes and complements the diet.
Food as Medicine
These whole-foods are loaded with potent cell-protective and immune-enhancing antioxidants Vitamin E, C, carotenoids, and phytochemicals as well as an array of protective minerals including calcium, magnesium and iron. Leafy green vegetables, olive oil and red wine help neutralize unstable oxygen molecules (free radicals). Omega-3 fatty acids—found in fish, walnuts and some fruits and vegetables—may offer protection as well. Finally, the Mediterranean diet provides generous amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds, which is protective against heart disease and some types of cancer.
The Mediterranean Diet : a Lifestyle
Rather than focusing on individual foods, however, the Mediterranean lifestyle is part of the “diet”. The Mediterranean Diet means eating fresh, whole foods, seasonal when possible, and avoiding processed, fiber-poor packaged foods. Think quality over quantity, take the time to savor your food. Daily activity is definitely on the menu for good health…walking, biking, stretching and doing it consistently to keep your heart strong, to minimize stress, and to keep your weight under control.
Focus on Fresh: Keep the focus on foods that you can prepare quickly from fresh (or fresh-frozen) ingredients. Do you think you’re too busy to eat healthfully? Don’t feel obligated to shop daily…that’s an ideal lifestyle but somewhat unrealistic in today’s busy world. Take advantage of flash-frozen fruits and vegetables (very nutritious), frozen fish filets and pre-cut produce. Prepare a pot of lentils in advance, and use over the next couple of days in salads and stews. The trick is to consistently avoid refined and processed foods, white sugar and white flour.
Building Your Mediterranean Diet
- Protein: Focus on fish as protein of choice: fatty fish such as wild-caught salmon and sardines contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Eat a variety of fish a few times a week including shrimp and shellfish…sauté, grill, poach or bake to limit calories and enhance nutrition; avoid deep-fried foods. Besides fish, skinless poultry, nuts, seeds and whole grains are good protein sources too. Optional: lean beef, veal or lamb infrequently (2-3 times per month): grilled is best.
- Vegetables and Fruits: A Mediterranean diet menu includes an infinite variety of plant foods—vary your choices for optimal nutrition. This list includes sweet and white potatoes (scrubbed with skin) and other starchy vegetables. Deep reds, greens, yellows and orange means beta carotene and antioxidants.
- Legumes and dried beans: Lentils, quinoa, and groats, wheat berries: salads made with green onions and tomatoes and feta cheese: All contain adequate protein, generous amounts of fiber, little saturated fat and no cholesterol.
- Healthy fats: Olive oil, canola oil, olives, seeds and nuts contain heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; use olive and canola oil in place of butter and other vegetable oils.
- Dairy: Watching calories? Choose low and nonfat yogurt and cheese. Unsweetened or lightly-sweetened soy dairy substitutes fortified with calcium and vitamin D are great: include nonfat or low fat soy milk, soy cheese and yogurt.
- Alcohol: One or two glasses (for men): if you have a medical condition that limits or prohibits alcohol, if you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you don’t currently drink, don’t feel obligated to imbibe.
How To? Specific Steps for Mediterranean Diet Health
- Eat Daily:An abundance of produce, whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, pasta and rice; dried beans and legumes; nuts and seeds. A few ounces of cheese and a cup or two of yogurt (Greek yogurt is deliciously creamy but lower in fat). Fresh fruit as typical daily dessert. No butter, margarine or vegetable oils, but olive oil.
- Eat Weekly: Eat a variety of fish up to several times weekly: Poultry (skinless) and eggs (unlimited whites, up to 4 yolks) a couple of time weekly.
- Eat Infrequently: Red meat consumed at most once or twice monthly (Recent research suggests a maximum of 12 to 16 ounces per month). Rarely: sweets with significant amount of sugar (or other caloric sweetener) and saturated fat.
- Optional: Wine or beer, as above, in moderation: some research links moderate consumption to lower risk for heart disease.