The Mediterranean diet made front-page news after the stunning results of a five-year Spanish study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Why all the excitement? It was the first major randomized clinical trial (the gold standard of scientific research proving cause and effect) using meaningful endpoints (heart attack, stroke and death) to show that indeed following a Mediterranean diet significantly protects against heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet is not a fad diet or quick weight-loss scheme, but rather a healthy way of eating and living that will last a lifetime. The Mediterranean diet has long been celebrated for its highly palatable nature and favorable impact on the prevention of chronic diseases, promotion of greater longevity and quality of life.
A single definition of the Mediterranean diet is difficult because of the diverse dietary habits of the more than 18 countries with coastlines on the Mediterranean Sea. There are, however, general food patterns that unify the variable diets of the traditional Mediterranean people. Although it is not clear yet which components of the diet provide the greatest health benefits, likely candidates have emerged in scientific literature that, when consumed collectively, provide a dietary pattern that is highly protective.
So, in a nutshell (yes, nuts are a component of the world’s healthiest diet!), here are some of the foods that comprise the Mediterranean diet, as well as some cooking tips that the diet recommends to benefit your overall health:
1. Make extra virgin olive oil your main fat.
Hippocrates called olive oil “the great therapeutic”…Homer referred to it as “liquid gold.” Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) stands apart from all other types of fat for several reasons: It provides the highest percentage of oleic acid, the extremely cardioprotective monounsaturated fatty acid; it is packed with powerful plant antioxidants called “polyphenols,” known to soothe inflammation and curb oxidative stress; it is also an excellent source of vitamin E, a major dietary antioxidant vitamin.
How to use it: Keep a small opaque herb infused bottle of EVOO on your kitchen counter and use it for any and all types of cooking. (See my recipe below.) Coat vegetables generously before roasting or grilling. Eat salads at lunch and dinner and dress with an olive oil vinaigrette. Pour a liberal amount of olive oil on fish before grilling. Drizzle olive oil over your plant foods to enhance their flavor: potatoes, bean soups, grains and steamed vegetables. Using EVOO as a flavor enhancer also urges you to put away the salt shaker, and instead flavor your foods with a variety of spices, fresh herbs and olive oil.
2. Eat lots of vegetables and fresh fruit at every meal.
Fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables: dark green and leafy; red, ripe and juicy; or bright orange and crunchy. This exquisite rainbow-colored cornucopia is the class of foods that keeps our arteries healthy and clean. Buy them fresh, buy them often and fill your body with a spectrum of healthy colors, nature’s medicine chest. Vegetables are chock full of myriad polyphenols (the major disease battling phytochemical). Daily intake of a variety of different types of fruit is good for the heart. Aim to mix ’n’ match your fruit for health.
How to use them: Routinely eat a dark green salad at lunch and dinner when eating in or out, and remember to dress them simply with extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar and/or fresh lemon juice. Try purchasing prewashed, bagged and prechopped vegetables, toss them on a sheet of tin foil, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and roast (425°F for at least 30 minutes).
3. Eat plant protein or fish.
Lentils and other plant proteins are nutrition giants, loaded with the heart healthiest of ingredients including fiber, antioxidants, plant protein, vitamins, minerals and iron — and all this for just pennies on the dollar. What’s more, eating legumes such as lentils might just be the dietary secret to longevity. A diet loaded with oily seafood is rich in the superbly heart-healthy marine omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
How to use them: If you eat out, frequent a steak house, where you can almost always find salmon or tuna on the menu. Just be sure to order it grilled and simply dressed with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Snack on fresh raw veggies dipped in hummus. Hummus is ridiculously easy to make: Simply combine a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas, some tahini, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and garlic in your food processor; whirl away and you’re good to go. Routinely sprinkle a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas or kidney beans into your salad or daily “greens.” Eat legume-based soups such as lentil, split pea, black bean, pasta e fagioli or minestrone. Snack on edamame — delectable baby soybeans often served in the pod — available at Japanese restaurants or frozen at the supermarket.
4. Eat walnuts.
Walnuts are an ancient plant food that has sustained humans since the dawn of civilization. Walnuts are key to the Mediterranean diet and heart health because they are a top source of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA is the omega-3 fatty acid derived from plants which our bodies need in addition to the other omega-3 that comes from salmon and other fish.
How to use them: Keep a bag of shelled walnuts on your kitchen counter and grab some nuts as a quick and healthy snack. Enjoy a fat-free Greek yogurt topped with a little honey, some crushed walnuts and savor a nutritious choice that makes a sensational and satisfying sweet dessert. Sprinkle walnuts on your green salads. Try candied walnuts — bake walnuts sprinkled with a little brown sugar — for a sweet treat.
5. Eat whole grains such as oatmeal.
The Mediterranean diet means emphasizing more fresh and natural, less-processed foods. Whole grains are much less processed than refined. Natural whole grains contain three botanically defined parts: the bran, the endosperm and the germ (or embryo). Eat the whole seed, or “kernel,” with the three parts intact — the entire complex — and you are eating a complete whole grain that packs a powerful nutritional punch.
How to use them: To get in a minimum of three servings of whole grains a day: Snack on popcorn (a bona fide whole grain), a tasty and filling snack that’s good for your heart and your waistline. Nix the theater popcorn or microwave bags and pull out the antique hot-air popper or pop the kernels in a brown paper lunch bag in the microwave. Season with a few sprays of olive oil and a touch of parmesan cheese or brown sugar. Make oatmeal your breakfast of choice on most days of the week. Cook up a large batch of the steel-cut version, which is highest in beta-glucan. Steel-cut oatmeal takes longer to cook but is well worth it for the superior taste, texture and health benefits. Keep a large stash of cooked oatmeal in the refrigerator, portion out and heat daily servings. Substitute 100 percent whole-wheat toast for bagels and 100 percent whole-grain muffins for pastries. Make all your sandwiches with 100 percent whole-grain bread or pita.
6. Drink red wine with dinner.
Why is it that the French routinely indulge in artery-clogging cream sauces, butter, foie gras and other fatty, cholesterol-laden foods yet have only half the rate of heart disease than we do? The secret behind this mystery, dubbed the “French Paradox” by scientists in the early 1990s, is thought to be all the red wine the French wash their food down with. Red wine stands apart from all other types of alcoholic beverages in its ability to neutralize heart attack risk due to its collection of powerful antioxidant polyphenols.
How to use it: To tap into wine’s huge cache of powerful polyphenols, pick red over white. Red wine has ten times the polyphenol content of white wine, because red wine is produced by fermentation of grape juice in the presence of the pulp (skins and seeds), where the polyphenols are produced. (White wine is made by quickly pressing the juice away from the grape solids, hence white wine is merely fermented fruit juice.) Maybe even pair your vino with some dark chocolate with a high content of nonfat cocoa solids — the new guilt-free super food! The scientific evidence is stacking up linking daily consumption of deep, dark chocolate with phenomenal health benefits, especially for the heart and blood vessels.
As to which of these components are most important, scientists concur that it is the whole package that confers the health benefits. Remember, one final suggestion, when you eat like you’re in Crete, imagine yourself sitting down to dinner over a leisurely meal enjoying delicious fresh and artfully prepared food, slowly savoring the joy of your Mediterranean meal — a far cry from mindlessly gobbling down your food behind your steering wheel or in front of the TV. Eating like a Mediterranean is as much lifestyle as it is a diet. I urge you to enjoy a long and healthy life by following the spectacularly delicious and easy-to-follow Mediterranean lifestyle—now scientifically proven to be the world’s healthiest (and tastiest) diet!
Here’s a healthy dressing using extra virgin olive oil from Brill’s book Prevent a Second Heart Attack.
Dr. Janet’s Parsley Chive Dressing
Delicious served on a salad, or a fillet of grilled swordfish or salmon. Serves 12.
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 bunch flat-leaf Italian parsley, stalks removed
3 stalks fresh chives, cut into small pieces
Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend until ingredients are well combined, scraping down the sides of the container at least once.
Nutrition per 2-tablespoon serving:
Fat: 14 g (0 g EPA, 0 g DHA, < 1g ALA)
Saturated Fat: 2 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 18 mg
Carbohydrate: 1 g
Dietary Fiber: < 1 g
Sugars: < 1 g
Protein: < 1 g
For more information about Dr. Janet Brill, visit drjanet.com.
Photo Credit: Autumnhoverter/iStock