Mediterranean Eating Style Filled with Substance
by Tracy Garrett
Hummus with pita. Spanikopita with lamb. Grilled zucchini with skorthalia. The names of most Mediterranean dishes roll right off the tongue (and stoke the taste buds). But they don’t just sound good; they’re good for you.
The Mediterranean style of eating is much more than the latest food fad. Research has shown that it can yield many health benefits and help prevent and manage chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, COPD and others.
I deliberately don’t use the word “diet” because there is no one “Mediterranean diet” or single set of criteria. Rather, it’s more of a traditional style of eating found in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
Envision a food pyramid. Plant-based foods form the foundation of the Mediterranean style of eating, which includes an abundance of vegetables, fruits and whole grains (versus refined grains). Whole grains include barley, buckwheat, bulgur, farro wheat, oats, polenta, rice, wheat berries, bread, couscous, pasta, millet and spelt. Grains are prepared and served with healthy fat. For example, bread is often eaten dipped into olive oil, a healthy alternative to butter.
Six or more servings of vegetables and fruits are recommended per day. Vegetable choices range from artichokes, to Brussels sprouts, kale, peas, pumpkin, spinach, zucchini and many more. Fruits are often eaten as a desert in the traditional Mediterranean style.
The next level on the Mediterranean-style pyramid consists of nuts, beans, legumes and seeds, all of which are excellent sources of protein, healthy fats and fiber.
Moving up toward the top of the pyramid, we find fish and shellfish, which are a Mediterranean staple and are consumed twice a week on average. Salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, and lake trout, are common and all are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, proven to lower triglycerides, help improve blood pressure, and decrease blood clotting. Poultry is also consumed two times per week on average. Lean red meats, however, are limited to just a few times per month. Herbs and spices are used to season foods instead of salt.
Much has been written in recent years about the health benefits of wine, red wine in particular. This also holds true for the Mediterranean style but the emphasis is on moderate consumption, meaning 1-2 glasses per day.
Our bodies need fat. We just want to be sure we are getting our fat from healthy sources such as olive oil and nuts. Olive oil is the principal source of dietary fat in this style. Extra-virgin or virgin olive oils are less processed and contain the highest quantity of antioxidants as compared to other oils.
Regular physical activity and a strong social network, prevalent in the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, also factor heavily into the health equation.
Ironically, the Mediterranean style of eating is not as widespread as it once was in this region. American-style fast foods and processed and pre-packaged food are largely to blame. However, anyone who decides to adopt the traditional Mediterranean style of eating will be rewarded with great food and improved health.
The staff at the Sun Health Center for Health & Wellbeing can help you get on the path to better health and wellness through nutrition, exercise, diabetes education, memory care, acupuncture, and more. For more information call: 623-832-WELL (9355) or visit www.SunHealthWellbeing.org
Tracy Garrett is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Sun Health Center for Health & Wellbeing in Surprise, Ariz.
(Originally published Aug. 22, 2014; last updated Jan. 12, 2019.)