Traditional Mediterranean style of eating has gained attention for its various health benefits, which has led many people to follow the Mediterranean diet. However, the “diet” is only one part of this total lifestyle based on everyday living around the Mediterranean Basin in countries like Spain, Italy or Greece.
Scientists noted that individuals from these areas lived longer, healthier and happier lives. The reason was a lifestyle that included healthy nutrition, intense physical activity, anti-stress attitudes and enjoying time with family and friends. This resulted in many studies focusing on the diet components of this lifestyle.
The Mediterranean diet might lead to lower risk of heart disease, lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a longer life. It is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes a plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Strive for seven to 10 servings of vegetables and fruits each day. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Nuts are high in fat, but most of the fat is not saturated. Due to their high calories, limit your serving to a handful a day. Avoid candied or honey-roasted and heavily salted nuts.
The focus of the Mediterranean diet is making wise choices about the types of fat you eat. It discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease. Try olive or canola oil as a healthful replacement for butter or margarine or use it for cooking or dipping. These oils provide monounsaturated fat, which helps to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Fish and seafood are common healthy sources of protein in this diet, along with nuts and seeds. For beef and other meats that can be high in saturated fats, choose low-fat versions, keep the portion sizes small, and limit the frequency. Avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats. Fatty fish, like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon, are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole or 2 percent milk, cheese and ice cream and switch to lower fat dairy choices.
The Mediterranean people use herbs and spices to season meals instead of salt. Red wine is another component of this diet but get the okay from your doctor first before having a glass of wine at dinner. If you don’t drink alcohol, you can get similar health benefits by drinking purple grape juice as an alternative. End your meal with a bowl of fruit instead of cakes, pastries and other desserts high in sugar.
One would think food would be the basis of this Mediterranean lifestyle, but actually physical activity and social activity are at the root. People in the Mediterranean regions walk or hike quite a bit, spend time socializing and enjoying afternoon naps. These components contribute to a healthy outlook and reduced stress. Decades of research confirm the Mediterranean lifestyle is a healthy choice for Americans to adopt.
Lisa McCoy is a family and consumer-sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.