A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine provided further evidence for what healthcare experts have proclaimed for years: a traditional Mediterranean diet is beneficial in reducing your risk of heart disease. And that’s not all! This dietary pattern is also linked to a lower risk of cancer, Parkinson's disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Fortunately, you don’t have to live in the Mediterranean to enjoy the benefits; you can incorporate small changes for an overall healthier pattern of eating.
Olive oil is the primary fat in Mediterranean cuisine and contains healthful monounsaturated fat. Use extra virgin oil for its rich color and flavor. Its moderately high smoke point makes it ideal for sautéing (but not frying), or it can be used as a bread dip or salad dressing. Be sure to use it in place of other fats, not in addition, as its calories still add up.
Fruits and vegetables are abundant in this pattern of eating, appearing at almost every meal and snack. They don’t have to be boring! Include a variety of colors, shapes, and textures, experimenting with a new one each week. With vegetables, vary your cooking style (grill, roast or sauté) and spices. Set yourself up for success by washing and slicing vegetables for snacks, keeping fruit where you can see it, and packing them into lunches and snacks the night before school or work.
Fish is much more common than red meat or processed meat (such as sausage). If fish fillets don’t interest you, be creative so the flavor isn’t overwhelming. You will often find my family preparing fish tacos with vegetables, layering smoked fish with light cream cheese on a bagel, simmering clams and calamari with tomato sauce, or grilling salmon in foil with sweet potatoes.
Legumes are plentiful in the Mediterranean eating pattern, and no wonder – they are high in fiber and protein, and satisfying enough to take the place of meat. Try garbanzo beans in a green salad or toss cannellini beans with pasta.
Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are popular in the Mediterranean region. Although high in fat, they contain good fats that promote heart health, and small portions can be enjoyed on a regular basis. Try mixing them with dried fruit for a snack, with oats for breakfast, and with vegetables in a stir-fry.
Red wine is a traditional component of many meals, and has been linked to improved circulation and heart health. More is not better, though; limit your intake to one serving daily and if you don’t drink, health experts don’t recommend you start. Instead, try 4 ounces of red or purple grape juice, which is also beneficial.
The nutrient-rich foods in a Mediterranean-style diet are multicolored, flavorful, and easy to add to your day. Think in terms of what you can have, not what you should eliminate, and try one change each week. If you want to live a longer, healthier life, now is a good time to try incorporating easy Mediterranean habits into your diet!
As seen in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND
is a nutrition educator with over 20 years experience as a college professor, nutrition coach, presenter and writer, as well as a nutrition consultant and founding director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.