I’m sure you heard all about the new research on the Mediterranean Diet that made headlines worldwide. This large-scale study from Spain, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, got tons of attention because it was the first time we’ve had such strong evidence supporting the benefits of this style of eating. Participants following the eating patterns common in Spain, and other coastal countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, had a significant reduction (about 30%) in the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular events.
No doubt the results were solid — and the researchers even suspended the study early (after five years) because it was so clear that those eating the Mediterranean Diet were benefiting in such significant ways that the control group wasn’t — there were still critics of the study.
Some experts claim the design was flawed because the control group did not follow a low-fat diet – and others thought the media over-hyped the results. Despite the media brouhaha, and the study’s potential shortcomings, there are worse things than drawing attention to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood and healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil and nuts. Plus, did I mention the wine? Those following the Mediterranean Diet enjoyed a glass of red wine with meals. Maybe we can’t conclude that the Mediterranean Diet is more beneficial than a low-fat diet, it’s certainly a better approach than the way many people eat in this country. It’s also a style of eating that celebrates food, encouraging the pleasures of the table without a long list of restrictions. I say that’s all good.
Maybe the Mediterranean Diet got a lot of praise in the press. Perhaps the study’s results were over-hyped. I’m OK with that. I would much rather have people eat like a Spaniard, Italian, Greek or Lebanese than eat like a Caveman. It’s great that this style of eating got the type of attention that’s usually reserved for the latest fad diet. All too often — the science-based, sensible approach doesn’t make news, or doesn’t sell books. I hope this will help change that. Two fantastic dietitian colleagues Meri Raffetto and Wendy Jo Peterson just wrote a book, the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, which can show you how easy and delicious it can be to eat like you’re from the Mediterranean.
We certainly enjoy Mediterranean-style meals at home. Here are some ways you can bring a bit of the Mediterranean to you every day.
Do not fear the fat. It’s still hard for some people to get over the idea that not all fats are bad. The Mediterranean diet is rich in healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and avocados. Make your own vinaigrettes with olive oil instead of using bottled dressings. It will be fresher and tastier – and you’ll even help enhance the absorption of some nutrients from the salad compared to using a low-fat dressing. Another recent study found that the aroma of olive oil helped to enhance satiety, or feelings of fullness. Saute your vegetables in olive oil, snack on nuts instead of chips or pretzels, and find new ways to enjoy avocados beyond guacamole.
Make vegetables a center-of-plate star. Forget the notion of starting your meal planning with a big slab of meat. Find ways to have vegetables play a bigger role. As Americans, we often start our meal with a single salad drenched in a creamy dressing. It’s much different in Lebanon, where we visit my in-laws every summer. The Lebanese enjoy an array of vegetables during a meal, including salads made with some of the most nutritious greens you can eat – tabbouleh with parsley, fattoush with chopped vegetables, sauteed chickory with caramelized onions, and fresh rocca salad with beets. Meats are often served as kebabs, so you can enjoy a small portion after eating the vegetable-packed mezze. Find ways you can shrink your meat portions — enjoy pastas that are studded with vegetables and just a little meat, make a hearty stew with beans and small chunks of meat, and experiment with whole-grain entree salads topped with sliced roasted chicken.
Love your lemons. I always keep a big bag of fresh lemons in my fridge that I use to squeeze on vegetables or make salad dressings during the week. There’s nothing quite like a squirt of citrus to brighten up a dish. On the weekends, I will often squeeze a bunch of lemons and make a batch of dressing with olive oil, grated fresh garlic and kosher salt. I keep this elixir in a bottle in the refrigerator and use it on everything – roasted cauliflower, arugula salad, sautéed broccoli and pasta dishes.
Face your fish-cooking fears. Dietary guidelines recommend 8 ounces of fish a week, but most Americans fall short of this goal. For many people, it comes down to not knowing how to prepare fish and seafood at home. It’s not a difficult task. You’ll find lots of ways to gain seafood-cooking confidence in my new book, The Food Lover’s Healthy Habits Cookbook. Eating seafood twice a week is one of the 12 healthy habits featured in the book. You’ll find fool-proof cooking techniques and tons of family-friendly fish recipes.
Embrace beans. We simply don’t eat enough beans in this country. I love legumes, and try to find lots of ways to incorporate them into meals – adding to whole-grain pilafs, salads, pastas and casseroles. And of course, beans are a great base for better-for-you dips, including my favorite hummus. If you need to get to know beans a little better, check out Bean by Bean by Crescent Dragonwagon. It’s a tremendous cookbook and bean guide.
What are your favorite Mediterranean-style meals?
Image courtesy of Yanoosh on flickr