If eating and living healthier is one of your goals this new year, then consider a Mediterranean diet and eating more like the Italians. A Mediterranean diet has many significant health benefits, while not skimping on taste or making you feel like you are depriving yourself.
Basically, at the top of the Mediterranean food pyramid are grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, cheeses, yogurt, nuts, and legumes, all of which are consumed on a daily basis. Foods eaten on a weekly basis are fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, and sweets. Mediterranean people consume red meat less often on a monthly basis, and red wine about 1-2 glasses per day. If you’re looking for a heart-healthy eating plan, the Mediterranean diet might be right for you. The Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating, plus a splash of flavorful olive oil and perhaps a glass of good red wine, among other components characterizing the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Most healthy diets include fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limit unhealthy fats. While these fundamental parts of a healthy diet remain tried and true, subtle variations or differences in proportions of certain foods may make a difference in your risk of heart disease. Seafood plays a very important part in the diet, and portion sizes of meat in particular, as you can see above are often smaller.
Benefits of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean eating style significantly reduces the risk of further heart disease in individuals who had already had a heart attack. Remarkably, this benefit was not related to any significant difference in cholesterol levels — rather other components of the diet seem to work in concert to protect the body.
Key components of the Mediterranean diet include:
-Eating a generous amount of fruits and vegetables
-Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
-Eating small portions of nuts -Drinking red wine, in moderation, for some -Consuming very little red meat -Eating fish on a regular basis
Fruits, vegetables and grains
The traditional diet among some Mediterranean countries includes fruits, vegetables, pasta and rice. For example, residents of Greece eat very little red meat and average nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. This eating pattern has been associated with a lower level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation — a change in LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) that makes it more likely to build up deposits in your arteries. Grains in the Mediterranean region typically contain very few unhealthy trans fats, and bread is an important part of the diet there. Substitute the new whole-wheat pastas for the traditional refined flours. Throughout the Mediterranean region, bread is eaten without butter or margarines, which contain saturated fat or trans fats. When cooking vegetables, avoid frying, and instead try grilling or roasting. Both of these methods caramelize the vegetables, and bring out their natural flavors.
The Mediterranean diet doesn’t view all fat as bad. The focus of the diet isn’t to limit total fat consumption, but to make wise choices about the types of fat you eat. The Mediterranean diet is similar to the American Heart Association’s Step I diet, but it contains less cholesterol and has more fats that contain the beneficial linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid). These fat sources include olive oil, canola oil and nuts, particularly walnuts. Fish — another source of omega-3 fatty acids — is eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides and may provide an anti-inflammatory effect helping to stabilize the blood vessel lining. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans-fatty acids), both of which contribute to heart disease.
Choosing oils and fats
All types of olive oil provide monounsaturated fat, but “extra-virgin” or “virgin” oil are the least processed forms, and so contain the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects. Nuts. Nuts are high in fat — up to 80 percent of their calories — but tree nuts, including walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazel nuts, are low in saturated fat. Walnuts also contain omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts are high in calories, so they should not be eaten in large amounts — generally no more than a handful a day. For the best nutrition, avoid honey-roasted or heavily salted nuts.
Wine…to your health, Salute!
The health effects of alcohol have been debated for many years, and some doctors are reluctant to encourage alcohol consumption because of the health consequences of excessive drinking. However, light intake of alcohol is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Red wine has an aspirin-like effect, reducing the blood’s ability to clot, and also contains antioxidants. The Mediterranean diet typically includes some red wine, but this should be consumed only in moderation. This means no more than one 5-ounce glass of wine daily for women (or men over age 65), and no more than two 5-ounce glasses of wine daily for men under age 65. Any more than this increases the risk of health problems, including increased risk of certain types of cancer. If you are unable to limit your alcohol intake to the amounts defined above, you have a personal or family history of alcohol abuse, or you have liver disease, refrain from drinking wine or any other alcohol. Keep in mind that red wine may also trigger migraines in some people.
Putting it all together
You can successfully incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life by being an informed consumer and a smart shopper.
Choose plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, limit intake of red meat, eat fish — not fried or laden with butter or heavy sauces — at least once a week, don’t be afraid of healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and canola oil (but use these in moderation because of their high calorie content), and reduce or eliminate saturated fat and trans fats (also known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils) from your diet.
Read food labels to see what you’re really buying. Here are some specific steps you can take: -Eat natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. -Use butter sparingly, and don’t think that “low fat” or “cholesterol-free” on the label means a product is necessarily good for you. Many of these items are made with trans fats. -Eat a variety of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Ultimately, strive for seven to 10 servings a day. Keep baby carrots, apples and bananas on hand for quick, satisfying snacks.
Use olive oil in cooking. Try olive oil for salad dressing and as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. After cooking pasta, add a touch of olive oil, some garlic and green onions for flavoring. Dip bread in flavored olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter.
Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. Avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats. Try choosing grilled or roasted fish and poultry over beef. Keep your portions small, and add whole grains and vegetables to compliment the meal.
Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole or 2% milk, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
Eat fish once or twice a week. Water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Grilled fish tastes good and requires little cleanup. Avoid fried fish, unless it’s sauteed in a small amount of olive oil.
Keep walnuts, almonds, pecans and Brazil nuts on hand for a quick snack.
If it’s OK with your doctor, go ahead and have a glass of red wine at dinner with your pasta or fish. If you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t need to start.
It is not surprising to learn that people following the Mediterranean diet have a lower incidence of heart disease and cancer. Actually, the Mediterranean diet is not really a set diet. It is simply a healthy eating pattern – a pattern close to the dietary guidelines recommended by the American Heart Association. This diet is high in the good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) as present in fish, olive oil and nuts; and low in saturated fats and trans fats. It provides excellent source of fiber and antioxidants through encouragement of eating lots of plant-based foods. Many Mediterranean cultures adopt a laid-back attitude toward life, which decreases daily stress. This is important in overall well being, health both mental and physical.
Once you experience the delicious and healthy choices the Mediterranean diet has to offer, it just might become your favorite diet or way of eating.