The commercially-presentedMediterranean diet" does not, alas, mean "eat all the Mediterranean food you want," but rather, it's based on some assumptions about why people whose diets feature olive oil, yogurt, feta, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, red wine in moderation, fresh fish, and low amounts of salt, processed foods and sugars, and red meat tend to have better overall health, particularly in terms of lower rates of obesity and diabetes. A lot of the positive effects are attributed to the low saturated fat percentage in terms total calories consumed, largely because of the emphasis on olive oil, and the high percentage of fruits and vegetables.
The general assumptions about the Mediterranean diet are largely based, somewhat erroneously, on research presented in the 1990s, derived from studies in the 1960s by Dr Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health. The lower rate of saturated fats in countries (like France) with a similar diet is generally attributed to the use of olive oil instead of butter. Monounsaturated fats like those in olive oil and "fatty" omega-3 rich fish like salmon don't raise blood cholesterol levels. The emphasis on fresh, local, in season ingredients means fewer processed foods, and hence less salt, and far less high fructose corn syrup and other processed sugars. The emphasis on seeds, nuts and fish means more omega-3 in our diets, and the emphasis on fresh fruit, vegetables, and red wine mean more anti-oxidants.
The just released U. S. Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes a Mediterranean style diet as a way to reduce salt and fat, and increase flavor, and pleasure, in food. The emphasis is on eating olive oil, olives and other fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes / beans and a glass or two of wine, particularly red wines, daily. These are core ingredients of all meals. Using herbs and spices like garlic, peppers, chives, onions, dill, basil, rosemary, sage, thyme and citrus peels and juice to season and flavor food instead of salt helps reduce salt. Dairy products in the form of cheese, (especially feta) and yogurt in moderate amounts, daily, also help reduce the reliance on processed read-made foods. Fish and poultry are preferred to red meat and eggs, though both red meat and eggs are included in moderate amounts.
The basic principles are these:
- Regular exercise, whether walking, swimming, running, biking, sports or at the gym. Regular exercise is crucial.
- Emphasizing plant-based foods, like as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts that are grown as locally as possible, and are fresh.
- Substituting healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil instead of butter.
- Seasoning and enhancing the flavor of food with herbs, spices, citrus juice and peels, instead of salt.
- Reducing red meat to an occasional ingredient, a few times a month.
- Incorporating fish, especially omega-3 rich fish like salmon, and poultry at least twice a week as central ingredients.
- Red wine in moderation (one or two glasses a day, if desired).
I note that the Pacific Northwest emphasis on fresh and local food, sustainable food, and the locally available wealth of produce including olives, salmon, shellfish, and produce makes it an ideal diet for those of us in the Pacific Northwest. If you're curious about the practical implications of incorporating a Mediterranean style diet in your life, check out this site, which includes handy printable .pdfs.
Image Credit: Priscila Darre