So Why Is Everyone Talking About the Mediterranean Diet?
People are excited because of an important recent study, conducted in Spain, that showed stunning results. Researchers put two groups on a Mediterranean diet high in either olive oil or nuts. And get this: Both groups had about a 30 percent lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease than a third group that had eaten a reduced-fat diet. "Although you can lose weight successfully on a Mediterranean diet, this study showed that you don't have to lose a pound to experience the significant health benefits," says Holly Andersen, MD, a cardiologist and director of education at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute, in New York City.
It's clear we should all be eating nuts and olive oil. But the Mediterranean diet is more than a menu plan. In fact, says dietitian Connie Diekman, author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book, "It's not a diet at all, at least in our sense of the word." It's really a lifestyle, an attitude that celebrates the power of great fresh food as well as relaxed time at the table with friends and loved ones. It's not about fast food, eating on the run -- or deprivation.
Other research has shown that this way of eating also helps reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline. As Dr. Andersen says, "It's about living longer with less disease, and isn't a long, healthy, happy life what we all hope for?"
7 Steps to Eating Smarter
There's really no single magic Mediterranean diet. From Greece to Spain, Italy to Israel, each region and country has its own special blend of ethnic and cultural cuisine. What they all have in common are meals loaded with fresh produce, beans, whole grains, nuts, and olive oil, plus some fish, cheese, yogurt, poultry, and eggs. Oh, and did we mention a glass of wine with dinner? Cheers to that!
1. Vegetables are the centerpiece.
"It's very much a plant-based diet," explains dietitian Katherine McManus, director of nutrition at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. Americans tend to showcase a big piece of meat on the plate surrounded by just a few veggies. A Mediterranean plate reverses that, so it's full of vegetables with a small amount of meat.
2. It's all about whole foods.
Not many meals should come out of a cardboard box or a plastic bag. "We have more processed and refined foods and added salts and sugars in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world," says Dr. Andersen. Instead of prepackaged fare like chips, cookies, and crackers, Mediterranean eating emphasizes whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
3. How you shop is important.
Just because you don't have time to visit the farmers' market each morning doesn't mean you can't find fresh food. Ask your grocer when fresh fish is delivered so you can serve it for dinner that night. See if your town has a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where you can sign up to buy local, seasonal food straight from a farm. And check out LocalHarvest.org to find a listing near you. Plan meals and take a list when you head to the grocery store. Don't go when you're hungry, and avoid the aisles filled with salty snacks, sugary baked goods, and sodas.
4. Portions don't come in super-size.
Our idea of Mediterranean dining too often means a massive pile of pasta drenched in creamy sauce with lots of bread. But a typical serving size of pasta in Italy is more like 1/2 cup (the size of your fist) served with just a bit of sauce.
5. Fat can be your friend.
Perhaps the single biggest thread that ties various Mediterranean diets together is the liberal use of fatty fish and healthy plant-based oils from nuts and especially olives. (Butter and other animal fats are used sparingly, if at all, says Diekman.) Embracing those good fats may be key to the many health benefits of Mediterranean eating. For one, fat helps you feel fuller longer, so you're less likely to overeat. In addition, studies have shown that healthy fats play an important role in heart health. In the Spanish study mentioned earlier, the two groups reduced their heart risk by eating either four or more tablespoons of olive oil or about an ounce of nuts a day. (There's no reason you can't do both, as long as you watch your calories.) "Damage occurs in the lining of our blood vessels as we age," explains Angela Lemond, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "The fats seem to keep everything nice and elastic, so these linings stay smoother." And then there's the taste. "Eating plain spinach is not so yummy. Saute it in some olive oil with a little garlic, though, and it really brings out the flavor," says Lemond.
6. Focus on meals, not grazing.
Almost no one in the Mediterranean eats while walking down the street except for children eating ice cream, says food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives in Italy part-time. "In this country we've become so conditioned to finding food on every corner that we've turned into a nation of constant snackers." One way to curb mindless munching? Don't let yourself get too hungry before sitting down to eat. That may mean you need to eat a little more at each meal, but you'll be less likely to snack on unhealthy stuff in between.
7. A glass of wine? No problem!
The Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing grapes, so it's no surprise that wine is frequently served with lunch or dinner. But that means drinking just one glass (two for men), not the whole bottle. "Several studies show that moderate alcohol consumption may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, but more than a glass a day can also raise your risk of breast cancer," cautions Dr. Andersen. "You have to know your family history." Although many studies have focused more on the benefits of red wine (which has higher levels of certain heart-healthy phytochemicals), the Mediterranean diet typically includes both red and white wine.
How to Change a Few Habits
Food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives part of the year in Tuscany, tells us how to adopt a little of the healthy Italian lifestyle.
Make meals a social activity.
People in the Mediterranean don't usually eat alone in front of a TV or computer. Turn off the electronics and take time to enjoy every bite and actually talk to your family and friends.
Shrink your plate.
Even our dinnerware is bigger in the United Sates. Plates, cups, and glasses are up to 50 percent smaller in many Mediterranean homes. Research from Cornell University shows that people tend to fill whatever plate or glass they're using. So swapping in smaller plates and glasses is an easy way to eat and drink less without even thinking about it.
Treat your kids like grown-ups.
Children in many Mediterranean countries don't eat any differently from adults. They may be served less, but no one would think of giving them a completely different meal. Shelve the nuggets and buttered pasta and have your whole family experiment with new types of fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods. Your kids will adjust with some practice.
Take a daily passeggiata.
That's Italian for "little walk," an opportunity to get some exercise before or after dinner. In Italy you see people of all ages arm in arm, just strolling and chatting. It's less about trying to squeeze in a workout and more about getting out for relaxation and fun.
Do what mamma said.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. Go outside and get some fresh air. Even if you can do just a little bit to change your lifestyle, you'll start to see a positive change. This isn't a revolutionary way of thinking or living -- it's just one that makes sense.
Why Is Olive Oil So Good for You?
"It's high in both monounsaturated fat and antioxidant-rich polyphenols, which can help decrease the inflammation in the body that leads to chronic ailments like heart disease and diabetes," says nutritionist Katherine McManus. But not all olive oil is created equal. Look for "extra-virgin," which means the oil contains crushed and pressed olives and nothing else, so it has the highest level of antioxidants and the richest taste. Freshness is important. Check the label to make sure you're nowhere near the expiration date or the oil could oxidize and spoil (a good argument for not buying a jumbo can unless you have a large family). Store it in a cool, dark place. Olive oils from many regions vary in flavor, quality, and price, so ask for a sample if you can. And beware of a mega-bargain. "If it seems super-cheap, it's probably not the real thing," warns Jenkins. "There are a lot of counterfeit oils trying to pass for extra-virgin olive oil."
5 Cookbooks We Love
The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Diane Phillips
Easy recipes with pretty pics, from Grecian seafood stew to braised baby artichokes with dill aioli.
The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
This acclaimed book serves up 250 classic healthy recipes.
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
The two authors share their Arabic and Jewish culinary traditions in an attempt to find "peace through hummus."
Modern Mediterranean: Easy, Flavorful Home Cooking, by Melia Marden
A fun book from a chef who grew up in New York and Greece. Knockout photos and fresh recipes.
The Country Cooking of Greece, by Diane Kochilas
Organized by ingredients, from beans and vegetables to fish and game.