A Taste of the Mediterranean: Why it’s good for your health

Snowy backyard in Maine

Where my hammock will be as soon as the snow melts

Spring has arrived in Maine! Wait a minute, snow is still on the ground. The thermometer is hovering around the freezing mark. I have not seen one green shoot of anything in my yard. I don’t care. I’m still going to celebrate spring — by embarking on a delicious Mediterranean adventure. You’re invited to join me.

Have you ever heard of the Mediterranean Diet? Research shows that, among other benefits, it’s a heart healthy way of eating. I’m going to give it a try. Over the next few months, I’ll be preparing Mediterranean dishes. This is huge news in my family, because I generally don’t do the cooking. My husband does. He looks forward to the break in our usual routine. I look forward to experimenting in the kitchen.

As I try different recipes, I’ll share what I learn from choosing ingredients to preparing the meal to how it tastes to why it’s supposed to be good for us. Each blog post will include pictures and recipes, so you can try them out too.

Along the way, I’ll be getting some expert help from several dietitians who belong to the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. We’ll kick off the project with a guest post from registered dietitian Kitty Broihier. She’s going to explain just what the Mediterranean Diet is and why it gets such high praise from the medical community. At the end, I’ll share a couple of recipes I tried the other night that were easy to make and a big hit!

Couple in a cafe in Greece

What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?

Guest post by Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD
Courtesy of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (MAND)

First of all, it’s not a weight loss “diet,” it’s actually a way of eating that’s typical of the cultures located near the Mediterranean Sea. Traditionally, these people ate a predominantly vegetarian diet featuring lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes along with a good dose of olive oil, some fresh fish and little meat. Of course, just as there are numerous countries that border the Mediterranean, there is no one “Mediterranean Diet.” Nevertheless, there are several dietary commonalities among Mediterranean cultures.

What’s so healthy about the Mediterranean diet?

The people of the Mediterranean region (and the island of Crete in particular) live longer and have lower rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes than folks in other areas of the world. Their diet is thought to be a major reason why. Most of the research has been conducted with people who live in the Mediterranean region, are older, or who have specific health conditions, making the results—though no less important—less applicable to younger, healthy adults who may not have eaten a Mediterranean-style diet their entire lives. In February, however, a study was published that compared Mediterranean-style eating habits to a variety of cardiovascular risk factors in a group of young, active US adults. What did they find? Those subjects who adhered to a Mediterranean diet the closest had:

  • fewer indicators of metabolic syndrome
  • significantly higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) and lower LDL cholesterol levels (the “bad” kind)
  • less weight gained over a 5-year period

They were also less likely to be obese. And these results held true despite the fact that the group studied did not drink much red wine (they preferred beer), which is also present in moderate amounts in the typical Mediterranean diet and linked to some heart health benefits. Adopting this type of eating plan in midlife also seems to be protective against chronic diseases, as evidenced by data gleaned from the Nurse’s Health Study population, published in 2013. The Mediterranean diet bennies just keep piling up, and include mental aspects as well, including improvements in memory and cognition, as well as Alzheimer’s disease prevention.

Bringing it to the table

Want in on some of these benefits (not to mention the tasty food of the region)?  It’s a fun and flexible cuisine and not intimidating at all. If Diane can do it, so can you! Get on your way by making a few adjustments; here are a few to get you started:

    • Swap your usual fats (butter, corn oil, margarine) with olive oil. You can cook with olive oil, too, it’s not just for salad dressing.
    • Eat two servings of fish per week (not fried, though). Even canned tuna counts, but it’s best to mix it up in the seafood department. Oily fish such as salmon or sardines are great choices since they’re rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
    • Limit red meat as much as possible. When you do have it, make it lean and keep the portion to 4 ounces or less. Look for recipes that stretch red meat by making it an ingredient in dishes, instead of giving it center-of-the-plate status.
    • Fill out every meal with lots of vegetables and fruit. Consider eating a green salad every day, and vary the types of greens you use in it—there are many ready-made greens combinations on the market today, so there’s no need to eat the same salad all the time.
    • Sub a handful of nuts (pistachios, walnuts, almonds are good choices) for one of your less-healthful snacks each day (say chips or cookies, for example). Then keep the portion to about 1 - 1 ½ ounces, roughly the size of a generous handful. They’re filling, you’ll see. Wash them down with a big glass of water.
Bowl of Greek Salad

Greek Salad

A taste of the Mediterranean ala Diane 

As promised, here’s what I made for dinner the other night.

Greek Salad

2 medium tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium cucumber, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 TBS olive oil
3/4 tsp dried oregano (I have dried oregano straight from Greece, compliments of a friend!)
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
Handful of pitted Greek olives, chopped

1. Combine the tomatoes, cucumber and onion in a bowl and sprinkle with salt to taste. The salt is supposed to draw out natural juices from the tomato and cucumber, so let sit for a minute or two.

2. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with oregano and pepper to taste.

3. Scatter feta cheese and olives on top.
Serves two

Pita Pizzas

1/4 cup olive oil
2 TBS red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, sliced
Salt and pepper

4 8-inch whole-wheat pitas, lightly toasted
1 cup hummus (recipe below)
1 cup chopped tomatoes
Handful of capers
Handful of artichoke hearts
Handful of pitted Greek olives
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley and/or other herbs

Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Add the shallots. Set aside.

Bowl of hummus

Hummus

Hummus

1 can garbanzo beans (chickpeas). Drain and reserve the liquid.
Juice of one lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 TBS liquid from the garbanzo beans
Dash or two of hot sauce

Blend all of the ingredients in the food processor until fairly smooth.

Making the pizzas

Spread hummus over the pitas. Sprinkle the tomatoes, capers, artichoke hearts, Greek olives, and feta cheese on top. Drizzle on some of the olive oil mixture. Top with fresh herbs. Enjoy!

You can add or substitute other toppings, preferably fresh vegetables.

Pita Pizza

Pita Pizza

This week I start cooking for real. Watch for A Taste of the Mediterraneanhere on the Catching Health blog. Let’s learn together and enjoy some delicious meals. If you have any recipes to share, please do!

 

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For many years Diane Atwood was the health reporter on WCSH6. She's now a regular guest on the WCSH6 Morning Report. She is also a freelance health and wellness writer and blogger AND is pursuing a fine arts degree at the University of Southern Maine. Diane never plans to retire. She's too busy enjoying what she does.