I have been absent for many months and did I mention in the meantime I had a baby! In honor of my Italian roots and my mother, who past away while I was pregnant, we named our sweet baby girl Giuliana Iside. Which is a perfect segue into the benefits of living a Mediterranean lifestyle, even if you don’t live there.
May is Mediterranean Diet month and before you disregard the diet as another fad hear me out. There have been literally hundreds of studies done on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Even the New York Times best-seller “The Blue Zones”, which identified places were people live the longest, found 2 of the 5 “zones” were located in the Mediterranean region. Those being Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy. This pattern of eating is associated with a lower incidence of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer. There are various reasons for this; lifestyle, community, family connection, high intake of olive oil, low intake of processed foods and sugar, but I believe, and many studies agree, that it is due to lowering inflammation and oxidative stress.
Inflammation can be either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is a red bump after a bee sting or a swollen ankle after an injury. On the other hand, Chronic inflammation is quiet, persistent and prolonged. It is associated with cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease and diabetes. Calming chronic inflammation is where the Mediterranean diet helps due to the high consumption of vegetables, fruit, beans, olive oil and nuts. These plant foods all contain phytochemicals, most notably polyphenols. Phytochemicals give plants their color and work as antioxidants. Think purple eggplant, leafy greens, red wine, dark brown coffee, green olive oil, red beans and herbs like basil, sage and parsley, which have the highest levels of polyphenols.
How can we eat like we live in…Italy, Spain, Greece?
1. Choose the freshest, whole andunprocessed foods you can find. Try a local farmers market or at minimum buy seasonally. For example, buy blueberries and zucchini in the summer not in the winter or cabbage and winter squash in cooler months.
2. Replace liquid oils with extra virgin olive oil. EVOO is delicate so it is best not to use high heat, instead lightly sauté and drizzle over salads, vegetables and even fruit like sliced oranges.
3. Drink your antioxidants. Choose a glass of red wine with dinner (one glass!), drink a shot of espresso in the morning, green tea in the afternoon and follow everything up with water. While living in Italy we always had a bottle of sparkling or still water to go along with the wine.
4. Fill 1/2-3/4 of your plate with colorful vegetables. Vegetables found in the Mediterranean region include eggplant, arugula, green beans, peppers, onions, garlic, asparagus, cucumbers, mushrooms, zucchini…you get the idea.
5. Fill 1/4 of your plate with legumes, beans or unrefined whole grains with a smattering of nuts. Sticking with the Mediterranean trend and opt for cannellini beans, lentils, polenta (I choose organic corn products), chick peas, farro (if you are not gluten sensitive), buckwheat, black bean pasta, walnuts, almonds and tahini.
6. Eat fish a couple times per week, reduce poultry to once a week or so, and red meat even less. Sustainable fish, that are also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, include sardines, anchovies, mackerel, wild salmon, mussels, clams, wild cod and I like wild halibut, although I have never seen it on the menu in Italy.
7. Use an abundance of fresh and dried herbs. Here are some ideas; basil and tomatoes, sage and cannellini beans, oregano and eggplant, chives and mushrooms, thyme and zucchini, garlic, rosemary with potatoes and roasted chicken, olive oil and peperoncino on anything!
8. Enjoyment, pleasure and family meals. The Mediterranean region savors their meals and takes pleasure in dining. Try this for at least one meal a day; dine without distraction-only dining conversation, slowly chew each bite, savor the nuances of flavor, eat al fresco when you can and smile!
- 2 cups/15 oz can of cooked Garbanzo beans (BPA free can)
- 5-6 large cups of freshly washed arucola
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 1 TBS tahini or ¼ cup of pine nuts
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp peperoncino
- Splash of balsamic vinegar
- Water as needed
- Steam the arucola until lightly wilted.
- Add to a food processor or blender the Garbanzo beans, garlic, tahini/pine nuts, juice of lemon and process until smooth.
- Add steamed arucola, salt, peperoncino, splash of balsamic vinegar and 1 tsp of water.
- Continue to process, adding water 1 tsp at a time until you get a smooth consistency. Enjoy on pasta, crudités, gluten free crackers or onto of roasted vegetables.
Immerse yourself more deeply into the Mediterranean lifestyle and check out some of my favorite resources and blogs.
Oldways Mediterranean Pyramid
Olive Tomato (Greek recipes and nutrition by a colleague and RD).
Dream Italia for enchanting Italian tours (and beautiful photos of Italy).
The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook by Jack Bishop
Lidia’s Family Table on PBS (this one is recommended by my husband).
N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290
J Alzheimers Dis 2012; 29 (4) 773-82
Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009 Nove-Dec; 2 (5) 270-278