May is National Mediterranean Diet Month. The purpose is to increase awareness of the health benefits of this tasty way of eating. The diet is inspired by the eating habits of Greece, Italy, and Spain in the 1950’s. People from the Greek Island of Crete were considered one of the healthiest people on the planet at that time. The Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing a large array of fruits and vegetables and the Mediterranean Sea provides fresh seafood. We are lucky here in California to have a similar type of climate and coastal area. Even if you are in the Midwest, you can adapt your eating to a more Mediterranean-type diet. And because there are numerous countries that sit on the Mediterranean Sea, there are many recipes to choose from.
One of the easiest and healthiest ways to incorporate a Mediterranean-Type Diet is by shopping at Farmers Markets. Your produce will be fresh and local. I love visiting Farmers Markets in other states and countries. When we were in Venice, Italy we went to the Rialto Market, which has been in operation for seven centuries! The produce was beautiful but what mesmerized me was the fish market. I didn’t know there were that many types of fish. I learned to eat Octopus in Venice! When we go to the Big Island of Hawaii we always make the drive to the Hilo Farmers Market. The beauty of the fruit and the smell of the flowers are intoxicating. (Unfortunately, it recently closed due to lack of compliance with safety regulations but may be opening soon in a different location.)We’ve been to farmers markets in such varied locations as Marrakech, Morocco, Istanbul, Turkey, Phuket, Thailand and Aix-en-Provence, France, where we bought marinated octopus for Thanksgiving dinner (who needs turkey?). The list goes on but what I love, besides the wonderful food, is that I get to mix with the locals and be part of the town life.
The benefits of eating a Mediterranean- type diet include helping prevent heart disease & stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, and increases longevity and keeps you agile. It can also help with weight control. Some easy ways to get started are:
- Incorporate lots of vegetables into your daily eating patterns. Italians can make a meal out of farm fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and garnished with freshly picked basil and freshly grated cheese. I like to start my meal planning with the question ‘what vegetables will I make tonight?’ Then I think about how they will compliment a protein and you are off and running. Most people eat first with their eyes so having a pop of color on your plate is important. If you are serving chicken you don’t want a plate with potatoes and cauliflower. If you review last month’s blog on colorful choices you will get the idea. Challenge yourself to try a new vegetable each week for the month of May. Think escarole, swiss chard, okra, eggplant, tomatoes and of course, lots of garlic!
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Olive oil is a healthy monounsaturated fat. The unprocessed type is called extra virgin. You may also see the words first press and cold pressed, these are without heat and chemicals. Combine olive oil with flavored vinegar (Tangerine Balsamic is my current obsession @ www.OliveOilandBeyond.com) or mustard along with garlic and herbs and drizzle it all over vegetables and meats for a delicious healthy sauce.
- Herbs & Spices. Mediterranean spices add a heavenly flavor to food. They are medicinal as well. Many are antifungal, antibiotic and antiviral. So they are nature’s medicine.
- Whole Grains. Whole grains are trickier to come by than you may think. Many “whole grains” are combined with processed grains or have to be processed in some way to get to market. If we stop and think about instant oatmeal with all that sugar added you will get a sense of what I mean. My recommendation, for those that eat starches, is to read the labels carefully (wheat flour just means the milled flour -white flour- comes from wheat). So look for 100% whole wheat or sprouted wheat. Also, barley, whole oats, whole wheat couscous, brown rice, bulgur and polenta. If you are gluten free, like I am, be careful to stay clear of the many gluten free grain alternatives found in cookies, bread and cereals that are highly processed and sorely lacking in nutrition.
- Low Sugar / Low Soda. Many years ago we were in Grasse, France at the bus station. I got a gelato just as four busses packed with school children showed up. To my surprised NONE of them got ice cream! I guess they were going home to eat a nutritious meal while I ate my high sugar one! I bet it never would have happened that way in the in the US. Another noticeable difference between the Mediterranean Diet and the American Diet are the portions sizes. I remember drinking an Orangina in France. When I got home I went to buy some and the bottle was definitely larger. So of course I ended up drinking more calories and sugar just due to the size alone. I cringe when I see young children drinking large containers of soda! The amount of sugar they take in is astronomical.
- Eat More Seafood. Seafood is so good for us, unfortunately the ocean they swim in may not be. Eating smaller fish will help limit the amount of mercury and other toxins you could ingest. A big fish, like swordfish, has a bioaccumulation of mercury that small fish like anchovies don’t have. Also,The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program (seafoodwatch.org) addresses the issue of sustainability.
- Avoid Large Amounts of Meat. We really only need about a palm-sized piece of meat to get the nutrients we need. You don’t have to be extreme with your eating to be healthy. By filling half your plate with vegetables, a fourth of your plate with a whole grain or starchy vegetable you will only have room for a modest piece of protein. Having said that, some people, especially with blood sugar issues, seem to do better eating more protein, just remember to balance it out with vegetables.
- Savor Your Food. The social aspect of eating seems to play a part in why the Mediterranean Diet is so healthy. The recommendation is to eat slowly, enjoy the food and share it with friends and family.
Fun Fact: My last name is Licavoli. In Italian the vegetable Kohlrabi is called cavolo, the plural is cavoli. So it seems that I was predestined to be a dietitian/nutritionist encouraging people to eat more vegetables!
Ideas for Incorporating Mediterranean Food into your Daily Diet
- Start your day with Greek yogurt and berries.
- Swap out meat for a grilled Portobello mushroom
- Try artichokes grilled, sautéed, steamed or marinated.
- Make a fish dinner tonight!
- Have fruit for dessert.
- Have an olive oil tasting party! Don’t forget the vegetables.
- On a budget? Have beans for dinner and the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
- Add Mediterranean spices to your food. You can reduce salt and fat and add antioxidants to your meal.
- Give rice a try in Spanish Paella, Greek dolmas, and Italian risotto.
- Have hummus and vegetables for a snack this afternoon.
- Add Tzatziki to just about everything!
Lisa Licavoli, RD