Picture this. You happen upon a small rustic taverna overlooking a port in the sundrenched village of Sissi on the island of Crete. A group of fishermen, just in from the morning’s catch, sit on the terrace, eating their midday meal with one hand and trading stories with the other. As you get closer, the smell of earthy spices, grilled fish and sautéed local greens fill the air. At the center of the table is a loaf of warm country bread, leavened just that morning, being pulled apart by hand and dipped lightly in olive oil seasoned with oregano, pepper and thyme. Small plates of meat, cheese and pickled vegetables litter the table, leaving just enough space for a small carafe of sharp red wine. The meal is simple yet hearty. The atmosphere is relaxed and un-rushed. Welcome to your first taste of the Mediterranean diet.
In the mid-1950s, the US physiologist Ancel Keys took to the world to answer one question: What’s the difference between those who struggle with their health and those who thrive? The Seven Countries Study was the first study to examine the relationship among diet, lifestyle, risk factors and rates of cardiovascular disease/stroke in populations with contrasting diets, especially dietary fat intake. What he found was that the men of Crete displayed exceptionally long life expectancy and low levels of chronic disease. Over the next 50 years, nutrition researchers accumulated evidence on the remarkable health outcomes associated with eating in accordance with Mediterranean ethos.
At the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, you will find synergism; i.e., the foods that comprise the diet work together to create the health benefits attached. While some diet plans focus on single foods or nutrients, the Mediterranean diet is more of an entire dietary eating pattern that consists of whole, minimally processed foods, lean proteins, golden oils, herbs and spices, daily movement and sharing meals with others. This holistic approach not only yields flavorful foods from a blend of dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, France and Spain, but also constitutes on an entire lifestyle, and one worth following.
Some but not all of the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet include, much like the men of Crete, increased life span, improved brain function, lower risk of certain cancers, decreased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol. Later studies found that the Mediterranean diet can protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and even increase fertility.
Bringing the Mediterranean diet into your kitchen may seem difficult at first, but by keeping a few key features in mind and adapting your habits slowly, the transition can be simple.
An easy way to start is by switching your cooking oil to extra virgin olive oil, like Tantillo California Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Challenge yourself to gradually reduce the portions of meats and poultry, and introduce more fish and seafood into your diet (eventually aiming for 3 times per week). Meals should consist mostly of vegetables, cooked with simple herbs, beans and olive oil and incorporate whole grains such as farro, quinoa, wheat pasta, and brown rice. Boost dishes with dried spices, garlic, sun dried tomatoes and fresh herbs and don’t be afraid to add healthy portions of marinated olives. All you need now is a glass of spicy Italian red wine…or maybe two. Who said diets can’t be fun?
If you still find yourself unsure how to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your home, just refer to the handy list below:
- A foundation of plant foods
- Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are eaten at most meals
- Olive oil is the primary source of fat
- Used for dipping, cooking or finishing dishes
- Lowers your risk of heart disease
- Can decrease cholesterol
- May also improve insulin levels and blood sugar control
- Herbs and spices are used liberally
- Increases antioxidants and reduces the need for salt
- Cheese and yogurt are eaten often
- In low to moderate amounts for bone and heart health
- Increased intake of fish and shellfish
- Important sources of protein
- Rich is omega-3 fatty acids, especially salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines
- Eggs, poultry and meats are consumed regularly, but in small portions
- Eggs are used in place of meat in traditional dishes
- Only use lean cuts of meats/poultry
- Regular movement
- Daily physical activity is important; from running to walking
- Moderate consumption of wine
- Choose low sugar options, like cabernet sauvignon
- 1-2 glasses per day for men, 1 glass per day for women
- Enjoy meals in the company of others
- Eat slowly
- Have fun!
Laura Kovacs, MS, RD, CDN is a New York based registered dietitian and blogger.
@laurakovacs_rd // www.laurakovacsrd.com