6 Ways to Eat the Mediterranean Way
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
When I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends what they thought was the best diet—not just for weight loss, but for overall health—the ‘Mediterranean diet’ was the winner, followed by a similar so-called ‘plant-based’ diet.
In recent years, studies have suggested that consuming a Mediterranean-type diet confers several health benefits. In a study published this month in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, Italian researchers found that following a Mediterranean diet was inversely associated with metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions (such as high blood pressure or a large waist size) that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes—and prediabetes. The researchers concluded that their results were likely due to the overall dietary pattern rather than individual food components. And in a highly publicized study published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers in Spain found that, among those at high risk for cardiovascular disease, eating a Mediterranean diet with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence heart attack, stroke or death from cardiovascular causes.
So what exactly is a Mediterranean diet? According to Harvard researchers, the traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in plant foods (including fruit, vegetables, breads and cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds) and olive oil, and also includes dairy products (mainly cheese and yogurt), small amounts of fish and poultry and little red meat or eggs. It also includes wine with meals in low to moderate amounts.
According to Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Eating the Mediterranean way promotes health because it emphasizes plant-based eating in a very flavorful way.” She adds, “Diets high in plant-based foods are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that help ward off cancer, heart disease and early aging. They also help you manage your weight.” Lemond also says that Mediterranean-type diets are more than just about the food you eat, but how you eat and live your life. “Living a Mediterranean way of life typically includes daily shopping for fresh, local foods, a lot of walking and eating family meals,” she adds.
If you’re looking to improve your nutrient intake, add flavor (without tons of unhealthy saturated fat or artificial trans fat) and reduce your risk of disease, you may want to eat more like a Mediterranean. Here are six tips to help you get started.
Add produce to every meal. According to registered dietitian Wendy Jo Peterson, coauthor of Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, enjoying foods in their simplest form is a very basic, effective way to eat in a more Mediterranean way. “Gracing your meals with just a little bit of produce—1/2 an avocado, a few cucumber slices or some a few tomato slices—not only adds a nutritional punch, but really perks up the flavor of any plant-based meal.
Oil up. Culinary instructor and cookbook author Robyn Webb recommends drizzling extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) over cooked fish or poultry. She adds, “You can also drizzle some really good EVOO—perhaps one flavored with garlic, lemon or chilies—over cooked vegetables.” Webb recommends sautéing vegetables in broth rather than oil, and instead adding oil after the vegetables have been cooked. She says, “Once the oil is heated, you can’t really taste it, and drizzling luscious olive oil on top of vegetables finishes them off beautifully.” Webb also recommends lightly spraying olive oil rather than butter over cooked rice or other grains.
Get a little nutty. You can sprinkle nuts, alongside fresh berries, onto your favorite whole grain cereal (hot or cold) or low-fat yogurt or enjoy nuts solo as a mid-day snack. You can also seamlessly integrate nuts to add flavor, crunch and versatility to cooked dishes. “Instead of using commercial bread crumbs, I like to combine ground nuts (especially walnuts, almonds and pistachios) with whole wheat bread crumbs to coat tofu, seafood and poultry for pan searing or baking,” says Webb. And instead of a cheese or bread crumb topping on a casserole, Webb suggests adding coarsely chopped nuts to the top of a casserole in its last five to seven minutes of baking.
Dress for success*. Peterson loves to use lemons and their zest to finish vegetables or top salads. “Using lemons and their zest can help reduce your use of salad dressings, and because they intensify the taste of sodium, you won’t need as much—or any—salt from the shaker,” she says. Using lemon may also add enough flavor to roasted potatoes that you can even bypass the salt altogether.
Just say tomato. Peterson loves tomatoes—sliced, pureed, roasted, grilled, or stuffed. “Tomatoes are so versatile and pair well with other foods,” she says. Peterson recommends keeping canned tomatoes on hand to make a quick sauce. “A simple marinara made by roasting tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, onion and dried or fresh herbs makes a great topper for pasta or a Portobello mushroom,” Peterson says. She also suggests buying fresh tomatoes in bulk and freezing them for use during the cold winter months.
Grab some grains. Have whole grain cereals or toasted whole wheat bread with your morning meal, whole grain crackers paired with some cheese slices and fruit or canola-oil popped popcorn for a mid-day snack or brown or wild rice or whole wheat pasta topped with vegetables and some lean poultry for dinner. Registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet, suggests the following:
- Add barley to soups, cooking it with herbs and serving it as a side dish.
- Use barley flour to make breads or baked goods.
- Add steamed corn to salads and chowders.
- Cook polenta with herbs and tomatoes.
- Have whole wheat couscous with grilled veggies.
- Have brown or wild rice as a side dish.
- Use rye flour to make breads, pancakes and muffins.
For those who are gluten free, visit Celiac.org to learn more about a gluten-free diet.
*Thanks to Jillian Meshnick, Vice President of Zied Health Communications, LLC, for coming up with this clever title.
How do you eat like the Mediterranean do? Do you think it's a sustainable way to eat and live?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, go towww.elisazied.com. Sign up for the free weekly ZIED GUIDE™ newsletter for nutrition tips and news you can use (go to right side of home page at elisazied.com). Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.