The Mediterranean diet consistently ranks at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Diets because it’s healthy, sustainable and a flavorful way to eat. But not everyone likes olives, feta and other staples of what’s typically thought of as the hallmark foods and flavors of the Mediterranean diet.
If you’re among those who don’t go all in for olive oil and fish, or prefer to eat foods from cultures beyond the counties bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey, the good news is you can adapt the principles of this Mediterranean lifestyle for virtually any cuisine.
Health Benefits of a Mediterranean-Style Diet
Many dietitians urge you to adopt this approach to eating — or one that borrows from it — because a lot of research over the years has shown that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest ways you can eat. Gaby Vaca-Flores, a registered dietitian and founder of Glow+Greens, a nutrition and skin care consultancy based in Santa Monica, California, is one of those dietitians.
Because of these attributes, “it’s often referred to as a heart-healthy diet,” Vaca-Flores says. Recent research confirms that following the Mediterranean diet can improve:
— Blood pressure. Also called the “silent killer” because symptoms often aren’t obvious, blood pressure that’s too high increases risk of heart disease, heart failure and stroke.
— LDL cholesterol levels. That’s the “bad” type of cholesterol that many doctors warn should be kept low to prevent heart disease.
— Triglycerides. These fats in the blood can contribute to the development of artery clogging plaques that elevate risk of stroke and heart disease.
— Weight for those who have a high body mass index. People who are carrying excess weight have a higher risk of developing several chronic diseases including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other conditions.
— Blood sugar levels. The Mediterranean eating pattern can help people with diabetes manage blood sugar in a healthy way.
These health benefits come from the fact that the Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods, says Sara Riehm, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health in Florida. “This type of diet recommends whole grains, fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins (such as nuts, seeds and legumes) every day. It recommends minimizing animal-based proteins and avoiding sweets and red meat when possible. Consequently, we end up consuming fewer high-sugar and processed foods.”
In addition, Riehm notes that “plant-based foods have a high fiber content that aids in steadying blood sugar levels, reducing cholesterol and promoting digestive health.”
Basics of the Mediterranean Diet
While there are 21 countries that border the Mediterranean diet, each with its own flavors and style of foods, typically, a Mediterranean diet is thought of as including largely Italian, Greek or Spanish foods.
However, Riehm notes the simple principle of consuming mostly plant-based foods “can be applied to any culture in the world utilizing the crops that are readily available in that country.”
This is already true for the various countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The meals you’d get in Egypt can look a lot different from what you’d eat in Italy, but both can still completely conform to the principles of the Mediterranean diet. The same is true for virtually any cuisine across the world, from Africa and Asia to the South Pacific and beyond. That’s because there are certain commonalities in eating patterns from across the various countries that border the Mediterranean which form the basis of the Mediterranean diet.
Vaca-Flores says that any cuisine or eating pattern that conforms to the Mediterranean diet:
— Are high in fiber.
— Feature whole foods and minimally ultra-processed or “junk” foods.
— Include moderate amounts of healthy fats.
A typical Mediterranean diet includes:
— Nuts and seeds.
— Olive oil.
— While fruits and vegetables.
— Whole grains.
— Wine in moderation with meals.
A Mediterranean diet also limits:
— Foods with added sugars.
— Foods that are highly processed.
— Refined grains.
“Fortunately, these principles can easily be adapted to a variety of eating styles,” Vaca-Flores says.
[READ: Mediterranean Diet vs. Keto.]
How to Adapt the Mediterranean Diet for Other Cultures and Cuisines
It’s not difficult to adapt the concepts of the Mediterranean diet to adhere to the flavors and foods of virtually any culture or cuisine. Lisa Young, the author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” a nutritionist in private practice and adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU, says “you can take many of the principles and adapt them to other cuisines unique to (another) region by adding vegetables and whole grains from that region and lowering red meat and eating more fish and plant proteins. ”
“Olive oil is at the core of the Mediterranean diet — it’s the primary source of healthy fat. Cooking every meal with olive oil, or a fat with similar nutrients like grapeseed oil, can help you apply the Mediterranean eating pattern to any style of eating,” Vaca-Flores says.
Young recommends using other heart-healthy unsaturated fats such as avocado and nuts instead of saturated fat like butter.
You also have control over which fruits and vegetables you include in the diet while sticking with the overarching idea of whole foods with lots of plant-based options. Young says you should aim to fill half your plate at every meal with vegetables and fruits.
“If you want to closely mirror the Mediterranean diet, aim to consume six daily servings of vegetables and three daily servings of fruits,” Vaca-Flores says. You can certainly choose fruits and vegetables that align with virtually any culture or dietary preference and still be gaining the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet.
The same is true of whole grains. Every culture uses a grain that’s native to the region as a cornerstone of its cuisine, and to keep in line with the Mediterranean diet while using a grain that’s less commonly featured.
Vaca-Flores recommends choosing one to two servings of your preferred grain at every meal. Some options include:
— Brown rice.
Products made with these grains, such as whole wheat bread, pasta, tortillas or crackers can also be part of the diet.
“Lastly, make sure you’re eating fish about once per day on most days,” Vaca-Flores says. “I suggest picking a fish that’s locally available or based on your dietary preferences.” Fish contains plenty of protein that your body needs to keep your muscles strong. But if you’re avoiding animal products, you can also use legumes and beans as a key protein source, as these foods can also conform to the basic tenets of the Mediterranean diet.
Young says “one of the best and simplest serving suggestions is to make half the plate fruits and vegetables, a quarter healthy starch like brown rice or sweet potato and the other quarter fish and plant protein like beans and legumes. And use olive oil-based sauces instead of cream sauces.”
Mexican-Influenced Mediterranean Diet
Vaca-Flores offers a suggestion for adapting the principles of the Mediterranean diet to Mexican cuisine.
“As a Latina dietitian, I apply many of the Mediterranean diet eating principles to my Mexican cuisine. For example, I enjoy eating grilled fish tacos. Here’s how it stacks up against a Mediterranean diet:
— Tortillas: 100% whole wheat tortillas.
— Grilled fish: provides healthy fats and is marinated in olive oil.
— Toppings: includes diced vegetables like onion, cilantro, tomato and lettuce.
— Salsa: pineapple salsa adds fresh fruit and flavor.
Asian-Influenced Mediterranean Diet
If you prefer Asian cuisine, applying Mediterranean diet principles to those foods might mean:
— Eating more brown or black rice instead of white rice and seafood or tofu instead of meat.
— Opting for salmon or tofu teriyaki instead of other meats.
— Eating tofu with vegetables instead of meat and pork dishes.
— Instead of adding sauces that are high in sodium for flavor, be creative with herbs and spices like curry leaves, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint, turmeric, citrus, lemongrass, basil and cilantro to make flavorful Asian dishes.
African-Influenced Mediterranean Diet
For African cuisine, Young says “incorporating yams and cassavas is an excellent adaptation.”
— Use shea butter, coconut oil, peanut oil or red palm oil instead of olive oil.
— Use Amaranth, fonio, kamut and millet as primary grains.
— Use peanuts, fava beans and chickpeas to sub in for other types of beans or legumes.
Indian-Influenced Mediterranean Diet
For an India-inspired meal using Mediterranean diet principles:
— Herbs and spices of India, such as curry or turmeric are fair game on the Mediterranean diet. So, season away with your preferred taste of home.
— Following a Mediterranean diet while making Indian cuisine might mean eating roti, a type of whole grain flat bread, with a bowl of steamed dal, a type of dried split pulse.
— While ghee, a type of clarified butter, is a key ingredient in many Indian dishes, a heart-healthier option is mustard oil or sesame oil.
No matter the culture, Young says the key is to “focus on adding more plants and colorful veggies to the diet. The more the better. And switching from butter, cream and cheese to olive oil and nuts.”
Make the Diet a Lifestyle
As you embark on adapting the Mediterranean-style diet to the flavors and foods you most prefer, Vaca-Flores says you should “remember that there’s no specific food behind the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This means that the eating pattern in its entirety matters more.” In other words, diet is just one piece of the puzzle. The Mediterranean diet, like other blue zone diets, emphasizes eating fresh, locally available produce, exercising regularly, socializing and getting enough rest. It’s a whole package that improves health well beyond what’s on your plate.
“The benefits of the Mediterranean style eating pattern are also due to the healthy lifestyle changes it emphasizes. Daily physical activity and mental health maintenance are key components of this lifestyle and contribute to the benefits of this diet,” Riehm adds. And the benefits of those activities are important no matter what diet you choose to follow.
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How to Eat Like the Mediterranean Diet With Food From Other Cuisines originally appeared on usnews.com