Tasty Tufts Guide: The Mediterranean Diet
For years, nutritionists and healthcare professionals have urged people to adopt what is called a Mediterranean Diet. However, it seems to me that this approach to eating has a bit of a publicity problem – while there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of books on the topic, they lack the buzzwords and promises of fast weight loss or immediate better health that surround the flavor-of-the-month diets we’re used to. So what is the Mediterranean Diet?
The first thing to know about this diet is that it is not a weight-loss diet. It takes a very orthodox view of the term diet, as in the habitual decisions made by an individual about what foods to eat. Typically one eats enough calories to maintain their weight on a Mediterranean diet. Indeed the point of a Mediterranean diet is long-term sustainability and lifestyle. When you eat a Mediterranean diet, you’re looking to keep your health rather than dramatically improve it, though improvements often come if you switch from a less nutritious diet. For this reason it might actually be one of the best diets for younger people to adopt – it’s sustainable, more-or-less universally recognized as healthy, and works extremely well for people who are already in decent health.
The second thing is that the term Mediterranean is a little misleading. One isn’t limited to food from those cultures that surround the Mediterranean Sea, but rather is encouraged to eat in a similar fashion to them. Indeed there’s been a movement among nutritionists to recognize the benefits of eating like some East and Southeast Asians; who tend to follow similar practices to Mediterranean cultures.
Why Eat Mediterranean?
The goal of the Mediterranean diet is to establish a sustainable lifestyle based around consumption of nutrient-rich foods. The Mediterranean diet is designed to limit cardiac health risks by reducing saturated fat intake and cholesterol while increasing levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamins that contribute to better health in old age.
The nutrients regularly consumed in the Mediterranean diet are believed to be able to increase longevity. They help to keep bones strong, eyes and teeth healthy, the heart pumping properly, and the brain working at full capacity.
It might be considered an investment in the future, since many of the benefits are more noticeable because of what doesn’t happen than what does. Eating Mediterranean might keep you healthy into old age.
So what’s on the menu?
The Mediterranean diet is pretty loose in its recommendations; unlike, say, Paleo or Atkins, it has no central texts that define specific nutritional orthodoxy. Furthermore, unlike the US Department of Agriculture’s recommendations, it makes no serving recommendations or attempts to establish a certain level of calorie intake. To eat Mediterranean, one should:
- Focus their meals around whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Ideally, skins are kept on produce that can be eaten with the skins (like potatoes). Meat does not always need to be part of a meal.
- Utilize seafood as the primary meat consumed. Chicken and eggs can be consumed a few times a week. Dairy should be consumed in small portions (i.e. a slice of cheese rather than a dish focused around it). Red meat should be a treat rather than a staple.
- Make sure olive oil is the primary cooking fat. Nuts and seeds can supply additional healthy fat. The amount of cooking oil should not be excessive. Butter can be used in small amounts for flavor. Fat should make up around ¼ to 1/3 of total calories consumed; saturated fats from terrestrial meat and dairy should be limited to less than 10%.
- Rely on herbs and spices for flavor instead of excessive salt. Many of these spices have demonstrated health benefits. Particular emphasis is given to garlic and red pepper.
- Not always end a meal in dessert. Plus, dessert doesn’t have to be sweets, it could be fruit or cheese. When it is a sweet dessert, it should be a small portion. The best sources of sugar are natural sweeteners like honey and dried fruit.
- Drink water as the main beverage. Soda and juice should be a rare treat. Wine can be drunk in moderation, as can coffee and tea. Other than in coffee or tea, milk is generally not consumed.
As discussed above, there has more recently been a movement to reconcile Mediterranean eating habits with similar habits seen in Asia. Japan and especially the islands of Okinawa, for instance, have one of the highest average lifespans in the world; parts of rural China and Southeast Asia have also notably high lifespans which have been attributed to similar patterns of eating.
The main similarities are that these communities consume mostly grains and plants with little to no sugar intake outside of fruits. Meat is often a ‘seasoning’ rather than the focus of the meal, and the meat is often fish and occasionally pork or chicken. Much of their protein and fat intake comes from legumes.
Some concerns with these eating habits surround the perception that the diet is high in sodium; however many of the commonly eaten plants are very high in potassium which helps to moderate the effects of sodium. Additionally, table salt was rarely used; instead condiments like fish sauce or soy sauce, which are more dilute than pure salt, were used to add more complex flavor.
Some star examples of nutritious Asiatic foods are bok choy (one of the most nutrient-dense cabbage species) and Okinawan sweet potatoes, whose purple flesh is rich in antioxidants and may be the reason for low prevalence of cancer on the islands. Additionally, stir fry is an excellent way to make a meal centered on plant matter that fit the Mediterranean profile.
Want to eat Mediterranean? Here are some ideas:
This richly flavored white fish soup uses vegetables and a little bit of rice; intensified with a herbaceous and bright seasoning.
Jamie Oliver is one of the best resources for Mediterranean food. This stew, which is full of nutritious ingredients like garlic, chili, and olives, demonstrates a good approach to making a filling but healthy meal.
A meat-free meal with some weight behind it, a grain salad is a great lunch option. A combination of healthy fats, fiber-rich faro and vegetables, and zesty flavors makes this vegan salad enticing enough for even the most carnivorous eater.
Hummus and other dips can be a key player in the Mediterranean diet. With its good balance of unsaturated fats and its mild garlic flavor, hummus can be spiced up as much or as little as you want. In Mediterranean countries, dips like hummus, tapenade, baba ganoush, and romanesco can be meals in and of themselves paired with bread or vegetables for dipping.
Cover image source.