A Fresh Look at the Mediterranean Diet

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Scientists have confirmed that the Mediterranean Diet can save your life! That’s according to a large multi-year study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers found that a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, lentils, fish, fruits, and vegetables reduces heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular death more effectively than does a typical low-fat diet.

This study is remarkable because it provides a very high level of confidence in the connection between long-term health benefits and eating a diet made up of lots of seasonal fresh foods, with only small servings of meats, desserts, and processed foods.

Among the study’s participants, those who ate a Mediterranean diet showed robust benefits—these “Mediterranean” subjects showed a 30 percent reduction in their risk for cardiovascular events.

About 35 percent to 40 percent of the calories in a Mediterranean diet are from fat, mainly from unsaturated fats. Study participants enhanced their diets with either a supply of extra virgin olive oil or whole nuts, such as walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. Participants in this Mediterranean study also drank at least seven glasses of red wine each week (more about this later).

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet—one of the traditional diets common to the 16 countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—is based on age-old food traditions that have evolved over almost 5,000 years. The diet, which emphasizes seasonal and local foods, was first studied in the U.S. over 50 years ago when researchers discovered that men from the island of Crete had lower rates of cardiovascular disease than their counterparts in most other countries. The scientists concluded that this benefit was because these men ate a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and legumes.

How exactly does it work?

The secret behind the Mediterranean diet is apparently because the foods included in it contain far fewer of the harmful substances responsible for causing inflammatory and oxidative stresses in the body. These “irritants” to the cells in the body are thought to be at the root of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.

Build your own Mediterranean meal

Now, to get an idea of what’s for dinner, let’s go on a “virtual tour” of the Mediterranean region, as you start to assemble a Mediterranean meal. First, place a 9-inch dinner plate on the kitchen counter and, in your mind’s eye, divide it into quarters.

  1. Poultry or fish. In one quarter of this plate, place a 2-oz. to 3-oz. portion of lean poultry or fish that you’ve baked, broiled, grilled, or poached.
  2. In another quarter of the plate, place a medium-sized piece of fruit like one healthful nectarine (about 4 oz. in weight).
  3. In the next quarter, place a generous (heaping) mound of vegetables like tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, onions, carrots … and healthy spinach (about 1 and 1/2 cups).
  4. Grains and oils. In the remaining quarter of your plate, nestle 1 cup of whole grains, plus 1 of the following choices:
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil, or
  • 3 tablespoons of nuts, or
  • 15 olives, or
  • 1/4 avocado

And voilà! You’ve built yourself one quite imposing Mediterranean meal!

Some suggestions on how you can “go” Mediterranean

  • As much as possible, choose whole and unprocessed foods.
  • Include an abundance of vegetables at every meal. (At breakfast too? Why not?)
  • Eat fish at least twice a week (tuna, salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines).
  • For your fruit, opt for whole, fresh produce over the canned or dried varieties.
  • Choose whole grains, beans, chickpeas, and legumes over rice or the breads and pastas made from white flour.
  • When adding fat, either at the table or during food preparation, choose monounsaturated fats such as peanut and canola oils, or the oils extracted from hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds.
  • Enjoy avocados and olives as condiments.
  • Limit foods like butter, cream, and whole-fat cheeses, which contain unhealthy fats.
  • Restrict to an occasional treat all sodas, sweets, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products.
  • Enjoy a daily glass of red wine if desired—but limit this serving to between 5 oz. and 8 oz., and don’t forget to count those calories!
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