Different diets come in and out of fashion, just like clothes. Others, instead, have consistently been highly recommended for their proven benefits on human health. The Mediterranean diet is the utmost example; it has stood the test of time and it is still considered one of the healthiest of all.
The Mediterranean Sea is home to significant cultural diversity as it is bordered by Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa. Although each country presents its own food choices and traditions, recipes present a substantial overlap, therefore distinctive cuisines share nutritional attributes and ingredients.
Principles of the Mediterranean diet
As a rule, the Mediterranean diet is plant-based, high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and unprocessed grains while low in meat and meat products (only a few times per month), and a reduced consumption of dairy products.
These ingredients are bound together by olive oil, essential when it comes to defining the basics of the Mediterranean diet.
High in monounsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, antioxidants, vitamin C, polyphenols as well as other vitamins and minerals, the diet’s fat content is around 40 percent in Greece.
Grains are whole or in the form of bread or pasta cooked al dente, which lowers the glycemic index. Minimally processed foods also provide prebiotic fiber, which promotes intestinal health.
According to several studies, the Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As an integral part and expression of the local culture, the Mediterranean diet is mostly based on home cooking using local ingredients.
Olive trees, vineyards, and wheat have always been part of the Mediterranean region. But the area has also been a point of convergence for many different cultures; this means that typical Mediterranean foods include native ingredients as well as those imported long ago. These are some of the superstar foods in this delicious health-promoting diet.
Olive oil is the common denominator in the different dietary patterns of the diet, with Italy, Spain and Greece being the top three producers in the world. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in carotenoids and polyphenols, offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Olive oil is the main source of fat in the diet, and it is also used for cooking and baking. Despite common beliefs, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil has a high smoke point because of its lower free fatty acid content.
Wheat is the basic grain of the Mediterranean while another traditional grain is farro (or emmer), an ancient wheat with renewed popularity.
Bread is often baked using unrefined wheat and barley flours. Mediterranean wheat is also used for couscous and pasta. Traditionally, wheat was ground with millstones, producing a fiber-rich whole-wheat flour with a lower glycemic index.
Savory pies made with greens are key dishes in Greece and in other areas of the Mediterranean. Fennel, dandelion greens, rocket and chicory are just a few.
Of course, the nutritional composition varies between species; for example, darker greens are rich in carotenoids, vitamins C, magnesium, iron and calcium. Not all greens are equal in their flavonoid content, so variety in the diet is ideal. Greens are also a source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
In North America, it is possible to find dandelion greens and purslane as well as other cultivated greens.
Alcohol was common in the traditional Mediterranean diet, but consumed in moderation and in the form of wine and, as a rule, during meals.
Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidant polyphenols and flavonoids. Wine helps increase HDL (good) cholesterol while decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Table olives, especially Kalamata olives, are another rich source of antioxidant polyphenols. Olives are also used for cooking and flavoring.
This important ingredient is generally used as a garnish that provides flavor. They have significant antioxidant properties and are easily found as a condiment in salads.
Even when they are low in calories, capers are fermented in sea salt, this makes them high in sodium, so rinsing them under running water before using is always a good idea.
Chickpeas are a good source of fiber, folate and manganese while also providing proteins, iron and magnesium.
Chickpeas are one the earliest known cultivated legumes, they are the key ingredient in hummus and the flour is used to cook several traditional dishes.
Acidic foods lower glycemic response since they slow the stomach emptying process. Lemon zest is high in flavonoid content, with a beneficial impact on blood glucose, helping to control or prevent diabetes.
Oranges and lemons originally come from the East and they were introduced to the region by the Arabs. A healthy habit in the Mediterranean is that of squeezing lemons on salads or fish, as well as in drinking water. This lowers the glycemic load of the entire meal.
Nuts are also part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. They are high in fat but most of it is not saturated. Since they are quite high in calories, they are not eaten in large amounts.
This essential ingredient of all Mediterranean cuisines is usually found in different sauces. For instance, tzatziki is yogurt mixed with garlic, cucumbers and olive oil while aioli is made mixing garlic with eggs and olive oil.
The sulfur compounds in garlic produce both its pungent odor but are the key to its health benefits, which include anticancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Herbs contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, especially polyphenols. In Greek cuisine, herbs contribute to the overall intake of flavonols.
Herbs vary in each Mediterranean region yet, together with spices, they are essential to the Mediterranean cuisine. Many of the classic herbs cultivated in North America grow wild in the Mediterranean.
Feta and yogurt
Traditional feta cheese and yogurt are fermented, which makes them rich in probiotics, also providing an extra portion of protein to a diet that’s mostly plant-based.
Authentic Greek feta is made with goat’s milk or sheep’s milk while yogurt with honey is a common Greek breakfast.
Bring home the Mediterranean
The traditional Mediterranean diet is based on local foods, but that does not mean that people from other regions can’t enjoy its benefits. Adjusting to its basic principles is easy and it offers a tasty way to bring healthful meals to the table.
Preparing simple meals from fresh ingredients at home is basic to the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle. Besides, its balanced approach to eating does not disregard enjoying some meat, sweet treats and wine in moderation.
Basic rules to remember
- Eat plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
- Replace butter with healthy olive oil.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor.
- Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month.
- Eat fish and poultry at least twice a week.
- Drink red wine in moderation (optional).
- For better results, also include physical activity and enjoy meals in the company of family and friends.