Diets are often doomed to fail because they focus more on what you can’t eat than what you can. Don’t eat bread. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat fat. On some diets, even certain fruits and vegetables are forbidden. After a few weeks of being told “no,” our inner toddler throws a tantrum and runs screaming to a chocolate bar.
That’s what is so appealing about the Mediterranean diet, which isn’t really a diet at all but a style of eating that focuses on an abundance of delicious, hearty, and nutritious food. Just looking at the pyramid at right, developed by Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organisation that encourages healthy food choices, may be enough to make you look forward to the next meal.
“What I like about this approach to food is that it’s very easy,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, executive vice president of Oldways. “It’s not a fancy way of eating, but you’ll never feel deprived because the foods have so much flavour.”
The best part is that eating like a Greek not only satisfies your need to say yes to food, but has been scientifically proven to be good for your health. Decades of research has shown that traditional Mediterranean eating patterns are associated with a lower risk of several chronic diseases, including the big three — cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Most recently, a systematic review of 146 observational studies and 43 randomised clinical trials published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (13 April 2009) found strong evidence that a Mediterranean diet protects against cardiovascular disease. Other recent research has linked the eating style to a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
So, where do you start? Your next meal is as good a place as any. Just walk through our guide for menu planning.
Stepping into a Mediterranean Lifestyle
Although a trip to southern Italy or Greece would be nice, you needn’t go farther than your local supermarket. If your menu planning usually begins with a meat entree, then add a starch and a vegetable side dish as an afterthought, you’ll want to reprioritise your food choices. “Think about designing a plate where a good half of it is taken up with vegetables, another one-quarter is healthy grains — whole-grain pasta, rice, couscous, quinoa and the remaining quarter is bean protein,” says Katherine McManus, R.D., director of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a consultant on the most recent version of the Mediterranean pyramid. “Of course, you needn’t physically separate your foods in that fashion, but it gives you a good idea of the proportions to aim for.”
Step 1: Start with plant foods. Build your menus around an abundance of fruits and vegetables (yes, even potatoes); breads and grains (at least half of the servings should be whole grains); and beans, nuts, and seeds. To maximise the health benefits, emphasise a variety of minimally processed and locally grown foods.
Step 2: Add some lean protein. The Mediterranean diet draws much of its protein from the sea, reflecting its coastal origins. Fish is not only low in saturated fat but can also be high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Aim for two servings of fish a week, especially those, such as salmon and sardines, that are high in omega-3s but lower in mercury. You can also include moderate amounts of poultry and even eggs. Or substitute with vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, or soy products. Limit red meat to a couple of servings a month, and minimise consumption of processed meats.
Step 3: Say cheese. Include some milk, yogurt, or cheese in your daily meal. While low-fat versions are preferable, others are fine in small amounts. A sprinkle of high-quality Romano or Parmesan, for example, adds a spark to vegetables and pasta. Soy-based dairy products are fine, too, if you prefer them or are lactose intolerant.
Step 4: Use oils high in “good” fats. Canola oil is a good choice, but many Mediterranean recipes call for olive oil. Both are high in unsaturated fat. Minimize artery-clogging saturated fat, which comes mainly from animal sources, and avoid the even more heartharming trans fat, which comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Step 5: End meals with the sweetness of fruit. Make sugary and fatty desserts just an occasional indulgence.
Step 6: Drink to your health. A moderate amount of alcohol — especially red wine — may help protect your heart. But balance that against the increased risks from drinking alcohol, including breast cancer in women. A moderate amount is one drink a day for women, two for men.
Step 7: Step out. “The Mediterranean lifestyle is built around daily activity,” McManus says. Go for a walk after dinner. And choose leisure activities that keep you moving.