Get Healthy With A Mediterranean-Style Diet

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:22pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “Mediterranean Diet”? I know what I think of: Olive oil. However, there’s much more to the real Mediterranean eating and lifestyle than just pouring olive oil on everything. It also includes limiting red meat, emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables, and lowering your intake of refined sugars.

The Mediterranean diet: a healthy way to eat

Why should you eat a Mediterranean-style diet? Research continues to show that it’s good for your health. A recent study in Spain reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that a diet rich in fats from olive oil or nuts improved heart health indicators more effectively than a low-fat diet. Many people have a hard time adopting a low-fat diet, so a cuisine that permits more fats might be easier to follow.

Mediterranean foods are familiar and delicious

If eating Mediterranean sounds like a lot of work to you, relax. It can be as complicated or as easy as you wish. While dishes from this region may include hard-to-find ingredients or complicated recipes, it’s also possible to eat this type of diet with very little actual cooking. With the emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, a person who already eats lots of those is half-way there without even turning on the oven. Yogurt and cheeses are an important part of the cuisine. These are traditionally made with sheep’s milk, and you can find many of these types of cheeses in major grocery stores. Feta cheese is the most well-known, but there are many others. The difference is that while we may load cheese onto sandwiches, burgers, omelets and burritos, southern Europeans use it more sparingly as an appetizer or dessert, or in a salad.

The healthy fats

Olive oil is a key part of this cuisine, and represents a major difference between Western diets and southern European-type diets. Our fats tend to come from red meat, dairy products and vegetable cooking oils. Because the sea is intertwined with the Mediterranean lifestyle, fish is a major part of the cuisine, in simple grilled form or in complex paella. Mediterranean cuisines eat use little red meat, and the cooking oil of choice is olive. Walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts are important ingredients in many popular recipes, but they’re also eaten as snacks or appetizers, accompanied by fruit or cheese.

Simple changes you can make to eat a Mediterranean diet

How do you adopt this diet? There are a few simple steps. One easy step is to use olive oil-based salad dressing exclusively, and eat lots of salad. Throw in some feta or a grated sheep’s milk cheese from Spain or Italy and you’ve got a delicious Mediterranean meal. If you cook a lot, use olive oil for sautéing meats or vegetables. If you bake, you can even substitute olive oil in some bread recipes. If you like fish, enjoy it as often as possible. If you don’t—or don’t have a good source—you can stick to poultry or very lean beef or pork. For vegetarians, cheese and nuts provide the protein. But you can get too much of a good thing. Nuts are high in calories, and olive oil has just as many calories as margarine or vegetable oil. A handful of nuts or a little artisan bread dipped in olive oil make great snacks…as long as you pay strict attention to portion control.

Sample Mediterranean eating plan/diet

  • Breakfast. Beverage of choice, yogurt sweetened with honey, fresh fruit, and some simple rustic bread or pita (but no butter or margarine).
  • Lunch. Green salad with olive oil dressing and canned tuna, flat bread, and dried fruit for dessert.
  • Snack. Almonds and dried fruit like dates or apricots.
  • Supper. Grilled shrimp kebabs, grilled potatoes with olive oil, tomato and cucumber salad with olive oil dressing, and fresh melon slices for dessert.

If you enjoy cooking, there are plenty of cookbooks featuring traditional Mediterranean recipes. Restaurants and gourmet take-out can help to make this diet easy. Whatever you choose, Mediterranean eating is well worth the effort. Heck, if it's good enough to make a movie about, give a try to some new things. Check out this article on How to Make Ratatouille.

For further information on the differences between a mediterranean diet and a US diet see the following article from TheDietChannel: The Mediterranean Food Pyramid.