Enjoy the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
You don’t have to hop on an airplane to enjoy the numerous documented health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that a Mediterranean diet includes many already familiar ingredients such as pasta. However, the difference lies in how these ingredients are served — and what they’re partnered with on the plate. Here are a few easy tips to help you get started with the Mediterranean diet.
1. Put flavor first.
One of the best things about the Mediterranean diet is that it really isn’t a “diet” at all. Flavor is front and center at every Mediterranean meal, and dishes are steeped in a rich culinary and cultural heritage.
Mediterranean vegetables in particular steal the show in dishes like Pantescan salad with capers (a flavorful tomato and potato salad), orecchiette con cime di rapa (pasta with broccoli rabe and chile peppers) or fattoush (a vegetable and pita bread salad).
To give ordinary foods a Mediterranean flair, brighten them with a squeeze of fresh lemon or orange juice, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and season them with a generous handful of fresh herbs. Not only do these ingredients add acidity, richness and inviting aromas, but they’re also a healthy way to season dishes without relying too heavily on the salt shaker.
2. Opt for olive oil.
Olive oil is the go-to fat in the Mediterranean diet. It’s just as appropriate drizzled over vegetable salads as it is as the base of sauteed onions and tomatoes. Olive oil is a source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and polyphenols.
Having a little bit of fat with your meals:
— Can help you better absorb the fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) in foods.
— Can reduce the glycemic response of a meal, meaning your blood sugar won’t spike as much.
— Can also contribute to satiety, so you aren’t immediately hungry again.
In one study of more than 90,000 people, those eating more than ½ tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 14% to 17% lower risk of heart disease compared with people who didn’t eat olive oil. The scientists also found that replacing 5 grams per day of butter, margarine, mayonnaise or dairy fat with the equivalent amount of olive oil was also linked with a 5% to 7% lower risk of heart disease.
When a product is labeled as extra virgin olive oil, that means it was naturally extracted (cold processed) with no heat or chemicals and that it has more of its original flavors and nutrients intact. Extra virgin is the highest-quality virgin olive oil, meeting both chemical (acidity) and sensory (taste and smell) standards set by the International Olive Council.
For the best health benefits with olive oil, it’s also important to store it properly, without exposure to light, heat and oxygen, and to use it before the best-by date on the bottle.
3. Feast on fish.
While most Americans generally eat enough protein, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans indicate that we tend to over-sample from the meat and poultry categories and fall short on seafood and plant-based proteins like legumes.
One easy way to embrace the Mediterranean diet is to have seafood-based meals a few times per week.
Studies show that it can take 8 to 15 exposures to a food before people begin to accept it, so we encourage everyone to keep trying any chance seafood is offered, as well as to try a variety of seafood dishes to see if some might be more appealing than others.
Not all fish are created equal in the flavor and texture department. Grilled shrimp and grilled octopus have a pleasant, meaty texture, while salmon can be buttery and almost steak-like in its richness. Pan fried sardine or salmon patties are also a delicious choice, with hardly a hint of “fishiness.” For an affordable and easy weeknight seafood option, look for canned or pouched tuna or salmon.
4. Bring on the beans.
If you’re not a fan of seafood and still want to embrace a Mediterranean diet, remember that every meal counts.
There are plenty of plant-based Mediterranean dishes that provide protein. Many popular Mediterranean recipes feature this combination of protein and fiber, such as pasta e fagioli (an Italian pasta and bean soup) or espinacas con garbanzos (a Spanish dish of stewed chickpeas and spinach).
Try using lentils in a casserole or vegetarian Bolognese sauce, mixing chickpeas or cannellini beans into pasta or grain bowls, or choosing hummus or a nut-based trail mix as a snack. Additionally, walnuts and flaxseed offer plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important to eat if fish is not frequently on your menu.
5. Find fermented dairy foods.
In the traditional Mediterranean diet, milk spoiled quickly, so it was often enjoyed in small amounts in its fermented form — as yogurt or artisan cheese. Although dairy is important in a Mediterranean diet, the focus is on quality over quantity.
A small amount of a flavorful traditional cheese can be very satisfying and is the perfect finishing touch to a mixed green and tomato salad or a warm bowl of whole wheat pasta. Fermented foods (like yogurt or artisan cheeses) are also linked with healthy changes to the gut microbiome.
Another Mediterranean dairy staple you may already be familiar with is Greek yogurt. This creamy, protein-filled ingredient is delightful in a breakfast bowl with fresh fruit, mixed nuts and a drizzle of honey. To explore the savory side of yogurt, make a tzatziki sauce with Greek yogurt, garlic and fresh herbs and serve it as a dip for fresh or roasted vegetables.
6. Embrace the Mediterranean lifestyle.
While food is the first thing that comes to mind when we picture a Mediterranean diet, the base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid we use at Oldways depicts images of people eating together, cooking together and being active to illustrate that these practices are an important part of an overall Mediterranean lifestyle.
In addition to our food choices, a Mediterranean lifestyle can help us manage stress and maintain our health. It’s also worth noting that physical activity doesn’t necessarily have to mean joining a gym. In places like Italy, Spain and Greece, dinner is often followed by an evening walk — passeggiata in Italian, paseo in Spanish and volta in Greek.
Traditionally, Mediterranean meals were not rushed eating occasions in a cubicle or drive-through, but rather were a time for socializing with loved ones. While many people have sacrificed mindful meals at the expense of busy lifestyles, the tide may be changing. For some families, the COVID-19 pandemic created space to reclaim mealtime and savor home-cooked recipes with loved ones, a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year.
No matter where you are, take a Mediterranean staycation by embracing the key elements of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. With these tips in your back pocket, you’ll be well on your way to better health and well-being.
Recipe: orecchiette with chickpeas and spring greens
This vegetable-focused pasta dish hails from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It’s a simple but delicious way to incorporate healthy greens and fiber- and protein-rich chickpeas.
— ½-pound dried orecchiette pasta.
— 1 full bunch of broccoli rabe (rapini), washed, trimmed and crossly chopped.
— 1 bunch of spinach or green or red swiss chard leaves (about 4 cups), washed, stems discarded and roughly chopped.
— 1 garlic clove, finely chopped.
— 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.
— 1 (15 ounce) can of chickpeas.
— 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice.
— 1 teaspoon sea salt (or salt to taste).
— 1 teaspoon of red chili flakes or Aleppo pepper (optional).
1. In a large pot, boil orecchiette pasta al dente, according to the directions on the package. Add chard leaves to pasta for the last two minutes of boiling.
2. Using a large saute pan, boil two cups of water and steam broccoli rapini (covered) for three minutes.
3. Drain rapini water (reserving one cup in case needed) and add one tablespoon of the olive oil, garlic and chickpeas to the rapini. Cook over medium heat for three minutes.
4. Stir in the lemon juice and sea salt. Cook for an additional three minutes, adding rapini water if needed.
5. Place everything in a very large mixing bowl, including the pasta. Drizzle the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil and stir everything until the pasta is covered in greens, chickpeas and oil. Add rapini water if needed to loosen pasta. Salt to taste. Add cheese if desired.
Copyright Oldways, Adapted from Ana Sortun of Oleana Restaurant, Oldways Puglia Culinaria.
How to get started on the Mediterranean diet:
— Put flavor first.
— Opt for olive oil.
— Feast on fish.
— Bring on the beans.
— Find fermented dairy foods.
— Embrace the Mediterranean diet.
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