By Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN
The 16 countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea all have their own unique cultures, religions, ethnic backgrounds, economies and agricultures. But one thing they have in common is a pattern of eating. And, over the years, their way of eating has attracted a lot of attention for its many health benefits.
Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease – it’s been associated with being able to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the “bad” kind that can lead to build up of plaque in arteries.
This diet has also been linked to a reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
And, most recently, a study found that the Mediterranean diet might play a small role in maintaining bone health, especially in postmenopausal women.
First and foremost, fat isn’t considered “bad” and to be avoided. Instead of focusing on limiting the amount of fat you eat, it’s more about choosing the types of fat you eat carefully. Following this diet, you’re discouraged from consuming saturated fats and hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, which both contribute to the development of heart disease.
The primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, which is a rich source of monounsaturated fat – this type of fat has shown to help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol when it’s used in place of saturated and trans fats.
Fish is eaten on a regular basis as a part of this diet, especially fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, and lake trout. These fatty fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower triglycerides, improve the health of your blood vessels, help moderate blood pressure, and decrease blood clotting.
Although the health effects of alcohol are constantly debated, the Mediterranean diet says alcohol in moderation, especially wine, is ok. Wine in moderation means no more than 5-ounces for women per day and no more than 10-ounces per day for men.
If you want to try this diet, here’s how to start.
Eat Fruits, Vegetables and Whole Grains
The majority of your meals should be made up of a variety of plant foods – in fact, plant foods are considered the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. Strive to eat seven to 10 servings of fruit and veggies per day. Consider filling your plate up with leafy greens like spinach and kale along with non-starchy veggies like artichokes, tomatoes, fennel, eggplant and cauliflower. Work legumes and beans into your diet too, especially lentils and chickpeas.
When it comes to bread, cereal, rice and pasta, switch to whole grains.
Sometimes the fat content of nuts gets a bad rap, but some nuts are great sources of healthy fats. Reach for cashews, almonds, pistachios and walnuts for snacks. If you love peanut butter, pick up the natural variety, which doesn’t have added hydrogenated fat. You should also try tahini, which is blended sesame seeds, as a spread or dip.
Instead of butter or margarine, use olive or canola as a healthy replacement. You can easily cook with both of them and olive oil is delicious on whole grain bread. Not only will you be avoiding unhealthy fats, but by swapping in olive oil, you’ll reap a slew of added health benefits.
First, olive oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. But it’s also very high phenols, which are powerful antioxidants credited with lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage. When picking out olive oil in the store, you’ll know it’s the best if it’s label says “extra virgin” and is cold-pressed.
Make it Spicy
Instead of shaking salt onto your foods for flavor, chose herbs and spices. Not only do they make your food taste delicious, but they also tend to be rich in health-promoting substances. Try incorporating rosemary, parsley and oregano into your dishes.
Reduce Red Meat
Instead of beef, pork and lamb, choose poultry and wild-caught fish and seafood. In fact, you should eat fish twice a week. Save red meat for special occasions or once a week and opt for lean cuts and keep portion size in mind – one portion of red meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Avoid processed meats like bacon and sausage.
Switch to Low-fat Dairy
Limit how much higher-fat dairy products you consume such as whole or 2 percent milk, ice cream and cheese. When you do have dairy, you’re better off with skim milk, low-fat cheese and low- or fat-free yogurt.
About the Author
Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN
Joy specializes in medical nutrition therapy. One of her favorite things about being a Registered Dietitian at Crozer-Keystone Health System is the sense of community and togetherness she experiences within the system.
To schedule a nutrition appointment, please call 800-254-3258.