What if I were to tell you that changing your diet could feel like going on vacation?
Take a moment to visualize with me. Imagine yourself sitting at a table outside a restaurant along the coastline of a majestic blue ocean, watching the sunset and enjoying the tranquil breeze as it stirs your hair and caresses your cheek. Sounds good so far, right? But wait; it gets better. On the table before you is a glass of decadent red wine and a sumptuous meal, rich with the deep, woody flavors of authentic olive oil, perfectly aged cheeses, fish grilled and seasoned with flavorful herbs, and fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the fertile soil of a nearby vineyard.
This lovely place is the Mediterranean, a seaside region that encompasses parts of Greece, Spain, Italy, and France. Its full-time residents enjoy longer life expectancies than anyone else in the world—all thanks to a regular diet made up of the delectable ingredients I just described. In fact, multiple studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet doesn’t only reduce the likelihood of death from major chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s; it also helps protect against developing these conditions in the first place. What’s more, recent studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may also prevent depression and anxiety, meaning its followers are not only healthier but happier as well.
Now it’s time to return to reality. You may have lost the sea, the sunset, and the breeze, but the good news is that you can bring the meal with you and reap the benefits of a Mediterranean diet no matter where you are! Let me be your travel guide and read on to learn what it takes to start eating like you’re on vacation.
Basic Components of the Mediterranean Diet
Olive Oil — In addition to its robust flavor and its versatility as a cooking ingredient, olive oil has quite a bit of nutritional value. It’s high in vitamins E and K, packed with antioxidants known to fight disease and inflammation, and mostly made up of monounsaturated fat, which means it’s better for your heart than vegetable or canola oil. Your journey to the Mediterranean starts when you trade in your Crisco for some EVOO (extra virgin olive oil).
Nuts and Seeds —Fat, protein, and fiber are the nutrients that contribute most to a feeling of fullness after a meal, and you’ll find all three in these small snacks. Besides helping you stave off hunger pangs throughout the day, nibbling on nuts and certain kinds of seeds will load you up with omega-3 fatty acids, a type of nutrient that has been shown to improve brain function and heart health.
Because of the region’s close proximity to the sea, the Mediterranean diet features three or more servings of fish per week. White-fleshed fish like tilapia, cod, and mahi mahi are lower in saturated fat than any other type of animal protein, making them an excellent choice for lunch or dinner. And oily fish like salmon, carp, and sardines are also important because they’re an outstanding source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Eating fish more frequently will give you get plenty of protein, B vitamins, and all the amino acids your body needs to build, repair, and maintain its vital structures.
Herbs and Seasonings
We Americans tend to flavor our meals with familiar standbys: salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard. In the Mediterranean, chefs use a wide variety of delicious herbs and spices to give local food its distinctively delicious taste. A chicken breast sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary is a meal worth getting on a plane for! Mediterranean herbs are aromatic and bursting with healthful antioxidants. A good starter set would include basil, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Red wine contains powerful antioxidants called quercetin and resveratrol that have incredible health benefits. Studies have shown that a daily glass of red wine can protect against Alzheimer’s and heart disease, neutralize cancer growth, and enhance physical performance and muscle strength similar to exercise.
Vegetables and Fruits
Rich in vitamins, minerals, and various types of antioxidants not found in any other food source, fruits and vegetables are also an excellent source of fiber. This means they don’t “just” lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, birth defects, and anemia—they keep you regular and help you stay slim, too. While any fruits and veggies are better than none, the Mediterranean diet invites you to try exotic options like eggplant and arugula, pomegranates and apricots.
Moderation is key in the Mediterranean. We call olive oil a “good fat,” but in reality it’s more like a “better fat”—at bottom, it’s still a fat, and too much of any kind of fat is potentially harmful to your health. Fat should make up less than 35% of your daily calorie intake, so be judicious when using olive oil in your cooking. And as for red wine, just because one glass is good for you doesn’t mean that three glasses are better. Think of it as a tool for health rather than recreation.
(On the flip side, practicing moderation means you can indulge in tapas from time to time. That’s Spanish for “appetizers.”)
Going Mediterranean isn’t just about changing your diet—it’s about changing your lifestyle. Think about it: If you went on vacation to such a beautiful part of the world, would you simply sit in your hotel room and order room service the whole time? Of course not! You’d go out and wander the streets, exploring all the shops and taking in all the sights to get the full Mediterranean experience. Likewise, if you want to reap the full benefits of the Mediterranean diet, you must engage in regular physical activity like walking, biking, or dancing.
The Mediterranean Diet is Different… But Delicious!
Just like arriving at your destination on a real vacation, it will take a little time to adjust to being in a new place with your diet. As we’ve explained, the Mediterranean diet focuses on lean proteins (mainly fish and chicken), healthful carbohydrates from whole grains like rice and oats, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, and “friendly” fats like those found in nuts and olive oil. Compare that to the typical American diet, which is heavy on salt, red meat, ” refined carbohydrates like those found in white bread and pastries, and of course, lots and lots of sugar. If you’re used to eating this way, you can bet your body is begging for a vacation—but you may (understandably) experience a bit of “culture shock” when you make the switch.
I can promise you from personal experience that the Mediterranean diet is both scrumptious and satisfying, and that if properly adhered to, it really can improve your overall quality of life. So go ahead; book a trip to your grocery store. Once you go Mediterranean, you’ll never want to leave!
Just don’t forget to drop me a postcard.
(Need help packing? Visit the Mediterranean Diet section at our online store, Foods4YourHealth, and pick up the essentials to make your kitchen a Mediterranean getaway. Our sauces, soups, and spices are big in flavor but low in sodium, calories, and fat.)