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.
Not a “diet” as a verb, and I’m not describing a “weight loss” diet. No, I’m talking about a Mediterranean style of living, and describing the types of foods to eat most frequently. Mediterranean people 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…similar to South Florida, no? 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, 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 rather than hamburger or pork. Wine often completes and complements the diet.
Food as Medicine
These whole foods are loaded with potent cell-protective and immune-enhancing antioxidants such as: 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 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 Way of Life
Research continues to support the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits. Over the past 10 years, studies support the Mediterranean diet’s ability to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but also Alzheimer’s disease. 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. Choose quality over quantity and 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, minimize stress, and keep your weight under control.
Focus on fresh
: Keep the focus on foods that you can prepare quickly from fresh (or fresh-frozen) ingredients. We’re all busy, so 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 but you don't have to eliminate an occasional sweet treat, as long as it is occasional.
: Focus on fish as your protein of choice: fatty fish such as 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. 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
: This list is infinite—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 oranges provide beta carotene and antioxidants.
■ Legumes and dried beans
: From lentils, quinoa, groats and wheat berries to salads made with green onions, tomatoes and feta cheese, all of these 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.
: Watching calories? Choose low and nonfat yogurt and cheese. Soy dairy substitutes, fortified with calcium and vitamin D are great alternatives. Choose unsweetened non-fat or low-fat soymilk, soy cheese and yogurt.
: One or two glasses maximum, but not if you have a medical condition that prohibits alcohol, if you’re pregnant or nursing, or if you don’t currently drink.
: 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 and lower in fat). Fresh fruit as a typical daily dessert. No butter, margarine or vegetable oils, but use olive oil instead.
: Eat a variety of fish up to several times weekly. Poultry (skinless) and eggs (unlimited whites, up to 4 yolks) a couple of times weekly.
: Red meat consumed at the 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.
: Wine or beer, as above, in moderation. Some research links moderate consumption to lowering the risk for heart disease.
Registered and licensed dietitian Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, is the author of "Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally” – a book intended to liberate serial "dieters” and make living healthfully and weight-wise intuitive and instinctual over the long term. She may be reached online at www.SusanBurkeMarch.com.