The one thing you can be sure of about the Mediterranean diet is that it's no fad. The people living in countries bordering that fabled sea have been enjoying health and quality of life benefits from traditional Mediterranean foods and cooking for thousands of years. People who have grown up on the diet have historically had lower incidences of major chronic disease and those who adopt it have seen similar results. Along with health benefits related to hypertension, studies related to the diet have indicated a reduced risk for heart disease and certain cancers. It's also been shown to help prevent diabetes and even diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
What makes this eating plan so beneficial for your health? The answer, to put it simply, revolves around what it includes and what it doesn't. A good example of what's "missing" in the diet is red meat. The people living in the Mediterranean Basin certainly include some committed carnivores, but the thing is, red meat in particular is far more of an accent in their regional cooking and much less of a main course. Another item you won't find as often as you would on most of our tables is butter or margarine. Breads in that region, which are typically whole grain, are more likely to be eaten plain or dipped in olive oil – not smeared with products high in saturated or trans fats.
Another missing element in the Mediterranean cuisine is processed foods in general. Instead, people of the region have traditionally enjoyed fresh foods with a strong emphasis on the plant-based variety. And then there's salt which may not be missing but is usually in shorter supply. Most cooks in the region may use it, but they tend to shake in much less, relying more on herbs and spices to flavor foods and doing their blood pressure a favor in the process.
That's at least part of what's missing. So what's included in the Med diet? To start with, a strong emphasis on antioxidant-rich fresh fruits and vegetables. Our USDA Recommended Daily Allowance of fruits and vegetables would compare favorably to the Mediterranean approach, but the problem is that only an estimated 10% of our population actually consumes them on that level. The diet also recommends eating fish and poultry at least twice a week, limiting red meat to a few times a month (that goes for sweets, too) and a lot more nuts and whole grains than many people are used to. Regarding the nuts, they tend to be high in fat, but most of it is unsaturated. They're also high in calories, so work toward just a handful a day and avoid nuts that are honey roasted or heavily salted. And of course, there's that glass of red wine, always in moderation and strictly optional with regard to the diet.
Can the Mediterranean approach work for you as a healthy option? With very few exceptions, the answer would be yes. Just about any diet that's based on fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains and a sharp reduction in unhealthy fats is bound to be beneficial, assuming it also includes a good portion of exercise and a reduction in particularly health damaging activities like smoking and other substance abuse and a sedentary lifestyle. And there's more good news because there are a lot of diverse foods, dishes and preparations involved in the Mediterranean diet a number of which you may already be enjoying. To give you a little help along the way, we've included some links below that contain recipes and some more background on the eating plan.
As the Italians would say – a people who have turned the Mediterranean diet into an art form – Buon Appetito!
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