May is Mediterranean diet month, and fittingly the Mediterranean diet has been hitting the headlines again. This time a study presented at a scientific conference in Brussels found that a Mediterranean diet significantly decreased the levels of a protein known as C-reactive protein, which is one of the main inflammatory markers linked with the ageing process. Another positive benefit was that the rate of bone loss in people with osteoporosis was also reduced.
This new study adds to a large body of research on the Mediterranean diet which has already found that it can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, reduce body weight and increase life expectancy. In terms of a healthy diet, it’s right up their with the traditional Japanese diet as one of the healthiest (and tastiest) diets on the planet.
But how do you go about incorporating the best elements of a Mediterranean diet into your own life? From our own years of experience, here are 12 important tips:
- Eat lots of vegetables every day. No matter where you go in the Mediterranean region, vegetables abound! And don’t think that vegetables are limited to just lunches and dinners. Start your day with a veggie-filled breakfast such as a mushroom, zucchini & basil frittata, or sliced tomato on toast with a little finely grated Parmesan or crumbled feta, or bruschetta topped with sautéed mushrooms. For lunch, enjoy a vegetable-based soup, or a veggie-packed sandwich or wrap, or a main course salad served with some crusty bread. For dinner, don’t think of vegetables as a side dish. Chop them up and add them to Mediterranean-style stews, casseroles, pasta sauces and risottos. And don’t forget to have a crisp salad on the side.
- Use extra virgin olive oil as one of your main cooking fats. Extra virgin olive oil is made from the first cold-pressing of the olives, and has a rich fruity flavor. It’s also great for the heart because it’s a rich source of monounsaturated fat that lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Contrary to what some people think, it has a fairly high smoking point of between 365ºF-400ºF (185ºC-205ºC) so it’s suitable for most cooking purposes (except very high temperature cooking such as stir-frying). In fact, people from the Mediterranean region have been cooking with extra virgin olive oil for thousands of years. It can be used in all types of Mediterranean dishes including pastas, risottos, pestos, salad dressings, sauces, marinades, or drizzled on crusty bread.
- Eat tomatoes regularly. Tomatoes are rich in a health-giving antioxidant called lycopene. Your body assimilates lycopene the best when tomatoes are heated or served with oil like extra virgin olive oil. So enjoy tomatoes in salads dressed with olive oil vinaigrette, or made into pasta sauces, stews or soups.
- Add some garlic to your meals. This flavorful and pungent vegetable is full of health-promoting compounds including vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, and selenium. But one of the most important health-giving compounds found in garlic is allicin, a phytochemical compound which is formed when garlic is cut or crushed. Garlic has been shown to imporve cholesterol levels, boost immune function, and help protect from certain types of cancer. Garlic can be used in a myriad of Mediterranean dishes including pastas, stews, pizzas and salad dressings. It can also be rubbed raw onto toasted crusty olive oil drizzled bread to create bruschetta (Italian toasts).
- Incorporate beans and lentils regularly into your meals. For centuries, beans and lentils have been one of the staple sources of protein throughout the Mediterranean region. They also happen to be a rich source of fiber and essential vitamins and minerals including zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. These minerals are important for maintaining healthy muscle tone, combating fatigue and increasing energy. There are so many delicious Mediterranean ways to enjoy beans and lentils. Turn them into dips such as hummus; falafel (chickpea patties); add them to hearty soups like Minestrone or Tuscan white bean and garlic soup; make them into a highly appetizing salad like French herbed lentil salad; or enjoy them in bakes, stews and pasta sauces.
- Enjoy cheese and yogurt regularly, but in moderation. Milk spoiled easily in the hot Mediterranean climate, so the best way to preserve it was by turning it into cheese and yogurt. This cheese and yogurt was traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to meals, which meant it was generally consumed in small amounts. Luckily, Mediterranean cheeses such as Parmesan and feta and very rich in flavor, so a little goes a long way!
- Enjoy pasta — without the guilt. One of the biggest misconceptions about pasta is that it’s unhealthy and fattening. But have you ever wondered how Italians can eat pasta regularly yet still stay slim? Firstly, it turns out that pasta isn’t bad for your blood sugar levels at all. In fact, pasta is made from a special type of wheat called durum wheat. Durum wheat has a dense compact structure and is slowly converted to blood sugar, so it doesn’t have the insulin-spiking effect that many people think (that’s why it has a low glycemic index ranking). And when pasta is eaten with other foods that digest slowly — such as fish and poultry, fibrous vegetables and healthy fats such as olive oil — this also helps balance blood sugars. But what about pasta’s reputation for causing weight gain? The main reason is because we don’t eat pasta like Italians do. For example, a cup and a half of cooked pasta contains a little under 300 calories. But once you add a meaty or creamy sauce and top it with lots of cheese — which is the way most Westerners eat pasta—the meal can bloat out to 1000 or more calories. Then people mistakenly blame the pasta for making them fat!
- Snack mainly on nuts and fruit. Fresh fruit and nuts are the most common snack traditionally eaten throughout the Mediterranean region. Fruit, in its whole form, is a rich source of fiber and many important vitamins, mineral and antioxidants. Nuts are also rich in fiber as well as good fats that help satiate the appetite.
- Use a variety of different herbs to add flavor to foods instead of lots of salt. Instead of drowning your meals in salt for flavor, try adding more herbs (fresh or dried) such as those popular in the Mediterranean region: basil, oregano, flat-leaf parsley, thyme and sage. These herbs also happen to have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
- Eat oily fish at least twice a week. Fish is a staple food throughout the Mediterranean, and enjoying at least two fish meals a week (particularly in place of meat-based meals) is very heart-healthy. This is especially the case if you choose fattier types of fish such as salmon, anchovies, tuna, mackerel and sardines which contain high amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. This special type of fat has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, sudden heart attack, and the risk of stroke.
- Enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner, or weekend lunch. People from the Mediterranean have long known that a glass of wine not only washes down a meal exceptionally well, it helps to relax and relieve stress. And when enjoyed in moderation, wine has a number of health benefits. It helps boost levels of good HDL cholesterol, and red wine contains a special type of phytochemical called resveratrol that can help prevent damage to blood vessels and reduce inflammation.
- Be a mindful eater. Instead of wolfing down food while you’re watching TV or doing some other distracting activity, eat most of your meals at the table and luxuriate over them — just as people from Mediterranean cultures have been doing for thousands of years. Slow and mindful eating not only means you savor every bite of your food, it also gives your stomach time to signal to your brain that you’re full.