By now, everyone has heard of the heart-healthy and cancer-fighting benefits of antioxidant-rich EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil). Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts have been shown to reduce mood disorders like depression and anxiety. We accept that leafy greens are super foods and that white bread is the enemy. Buzz of the “Mediterranean diet” may have even hovered around our heads at one time or two (or twenty). We have heard the hype, but have we absorbed the message?
It is no secret that the Mediterranean countries have cultivated one of the healthiest diets in the world. In 2015, six of these nations were listed among the 20 healthiest in the world, with Italy, Spain, France and Greece dominating most lists from year to year. Lower rates of cardiovascular diseases, type-2 diabetes, obesity, and stroke have been observed in the communities that stick to this regimen on a daily basis.
The food is also among the most delectable on our palates. Dining out tops our lists of “things to do” while traveling to this region and we tackle the task with ardor. Pizza and pasta in Italy? Absolutely. Paella in Spain? Bring it on!
Adopting this lifestyle can be one of the healthiest changes to our routine. These tips will jump start your way to enjoying clean, Mediterranean cuisine, daily.
Design your meals around the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid
A food pyramid is a helpful device used to break down daily, weekly and monthly dietary requirements. The best part about the Mediterranean Food Pyramid is that nothing is left behind.
–Fruits, vegetables, legumes and a choice of complex carbohydrates comprise the spine that holds the rest of the diet together. Each of these food groups should be consumed with every meal.
–Fish, poultry, and eggs are viewed as supplementary choices, enjoyed 2-3 times per week. Baked sweets can be relished a few times per week as well.
–Red meats are treated as special treats, to be saved for special occasions, including holidays.
Moderate red wine consumption also makes up part of this lifestyle and Mediterranean folks can be true connoisseurs. The MVP here is resveratrol, an antioxidant linked to lowering bad cholesterol, raising good cholesterol and preventing blood clots. A maximum of one to two glasses per day is recommended for the average person, and people with certain health concerns are cautioned against alcohol consumption in general.
Must-Try Recipe: The Mediterranean Platter
Carrots (and other vegetables you prefer)
Whole wheat bread
How: Variety surely is the spice of life. It is also the keystone to Mediterranean cuisine. For lunch, group a variety of vegetables (cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, and carrots, for example), olives, small slices of whole wheat bread and cubes of your favorite cheese in individual piles around a dish. In the middle, add heaping spoonfuls of hummus, tzatziki (greek yogurt-based dip) and couscous. Not only is this meal easy and delicious, but it covers many major food groups and will introduce the best flavors from around the Mediterranean Sea into one dish.
Think of the Mediterranean Diet as less of a diet and more of a lifestyle
The word diet is plagued with negative undertones. It represents the types of food that we routinely eat, but also signifies curbing oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food. But take a look at the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid (above); nothing is off limits and everything is recognizable (and enjoyable).
The Mediterranean cultures love their food so much that meals are savored. Work-time lunch breaks last between 1-2 hours and social gatherings nearly always include a meal.
They are culinary masterminds behind delectables like gelato, croissants, flan, and baklava. The trick is to eat healthful, smaller portions often and reserve special treats for 2-3 times per week. By no means do you have to cut out your favorite snacks; just space them out!
Carbohydrates and fats are staples, and choosing the healthiest options is key. Olive oil is a chart topper, followed by cheese and yogurt. Shavings of Feta, Ricotta, Parmesan and Provolone will add protein, calcium and a dash of flavor to your meals. Bread and pasta can be enjoyed regularly, especially the whole grain options, and carbohydrates pair well with fiber to slow sugar absorption, preventing spikes in our bloodstream and energy levels.
The Mediterranean diet is also environmentally friendly. Take a second glance at your trusty food pyramid. This cuisine is heavy in plant-based ingredients. Not only is it life sustaining, but it is environmentally sustaining as well!
Must-Try Recipe: Paella
This isn’t the easiest recipe to master, but one that is well-worth the effort. This Spanish dish has everything that makes the Mediterranean diet unique, from an aromatic blend of herbs and spices to a rich marriage of surf and turf, cooked vegetables, and choice of grain. One of my favorite substitutions is couscous in place of rice, for a North African/Spanish hybrid. I recommend looking up different versions and choosing the one that sings to your soul.
Recipes can be simple yet effective
Eating healthy has never looked so good or been this easy. The high quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables keep the daily routines simple, and clean cooking methods can reduce your time slaving over a hot stove. Grocery store runs will also decrease when you base the majority of your shopping list to the perimeter of the store (typical areas for produce, legumes, fresh fish, meat, and dairy).
Must-Try Recipe: Grilled Salmon with a side salad
Balsamic Vinegar and EVOO
How: For a quick fix, mix 3 parts of chopped basil with 1 part of chopped parsley. Add a fraction of minced garlic (1-2 cloves will suffice for two salmon fillets) and enough lemon juice to soak the spices. Rub this mixture over your salmon and grill to perfection.
A simple side salad of finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, basil, crumbled cheese of your choice, toasted sunflower seeds and a balsamic vinegar/EVOO dressing are the perfect accompaniment.
Herbs and spices emphasize flavor, not salt
Did you know that cinnamon, parsley, chile pepper and sage are among the healthiest spices in the world? They are also prominent in the Mediterranean Diet. These herbs and spices have been reported to improve brain activity, act as antioxidants and boost metabolism.
Must-Try Recipe: Mediterranean Spice Mix
*The quantities will vary depending on your personal preference. I add a higher proportion of oregano since it’s one of my favorite dried herbs.
How: Simply combine equal parts of dried parsley, basil, rosemary and garlic powder with double the amount of dried oregano. Some recipes also call for half a part of cinnamon in the mix (cinnamon is a staple in Greek cuisine). That’s all that there is to it! Store this mixture in an airtight container. A Mediterranean Spice Mix can be sprinkled over chicken, turkey and fish, acting as a seasoning and reducing the need for salt from many of your meals.