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Mediterranean Style Cuisine for Health

Updated on June 25, 2012
The Mediterranean diet: Whole-grain breads, red wine, cheese, yogurt, olives, fruit, and cold-water fish.
The Mediterranean diet: Whole-grain breads, red wine, cheese, yogurt, olives, fruit, and cold-water fish. | Source

The Mediterranean Diet

A Mediterranean diet unfortunately doesn't mean "Eat all the spanokopita and gyros you want." Following the Mediterranean diet means incorporating the basic ingredients associated with the Mediterranean cultures surrounding the Mediterranean sea, and most especially, of Greece and parts of France, into your diet. These are places where everyday meals feature olive oil, yogurt, feta, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, moderate amounts of red wine, and plenty of fresh fish. The meals tend to have lower amounts of salt, fewer processed foods and sugars, and red meat. These choices result in better overall health, and most especially lower rates of obesity (which means lower rates of heart disease) and diabetes. Combine a Mediterranean-style diet with moderate exercise, and you've got a recipe for health.

The connection between Mediterranean diets and lower cholesterol is neither a miracle nor a secret. The lower rate of saturated fats in countries like Greece and 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 Mediterranean emphasis on fresh, local, in-season ingredients means fewer processed foods, which in turn means less salt, and much less high fructose corn syrup and other processed sugars. The emphasis on seeds, legumes, nuts and fish means more omega-3s, and the emphasis on fresh fruit, vegetables, and red wine mean more antioxidants. It's good for you, it's good for your local farmers and merchants, and it's good food.

Mediterranean Diets for Americans

The recent U. S. Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize incorporating a Mediterranean style diet as a simple, tasty and practical way to reduce fats and salt in our food. The Guidelines note that a diet rich in olive oil, olives, fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes (beans) and one or two glasses of wine a day, accompanied by regular exercise, serve to reduce salt and fat. A traditional Mediterranean diet emphasizes using local made fresh ingredients, which enhance flavor and consequently our pleasure in food.

The Guidelines emphasize olive oil, olives and other fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes / beans in all meals and a glass or two of wine, particularly red wines, daily. Fish and poultry are preferred to red meat and eggs, though both red meat and eggs are included in moderate amounts. The emphasis is on smaller portions of meat (4 to 8 ounces) and on fish. It's easy to reduce salt when you use fresh 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 relying on salt. Dairy products in the form of cheese (especially feta) and yogurt in moderate amounts every day helps reduce our reliance on processed ready-made foods. The Guidelines emphasize using fresh fruit and avoiding refined sugars, and especially, high fructose corn syrup. Reducing the amount of salt and processed sugars we eat can make a huge difference in terms of losing weight without suffering, and using fresh ingredients helps us reduce salt and sugars without losing flavor.

Core Concepts of Mediterranean Diets

These core concepts of a Mediterranean diet are derived from the U. S. Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For a visual representation, see the Old Ways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.

  • Regular exercise, whether walking, swimming, running, biking, sports or working out at the gym. Regular exercise is crucial for long term health. Note that walking and swimming, both of which are low-impact, are effective in terms of long-term health and agility.
  • Emphasizing a variety of plant-based foods and including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes/beans and nuts. Fresh and lightly salted or unsalted nuts are preferred.
  • Substituting healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil for butter and corn oil. You can use a one-to-one substitution of olive oil or canola instead of corn oil.
  • Seasoning and enhancing the flavor of food with herbs, spices, citrus juices and peels to bring out the natural flavor of foods, instead of relying on salt. Reducing the amount of salt we ingest can make a very pronounced difference in our health, especially our blood pressure.
  • Reducing red meat to an occasional ingredient, a few times a month, and reducing the portions of red meat when we eat it.
  • 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).
  • Regular small meals, consumed at leisure, rather than meals consumed on the go or deliberate over-eating.

What Are Omega-3s?

These days everyone is talking about omega fatty acids, and often, they're not really telling you what omega-3s are or why you should care. Omega fatty acids are important because they're not just good for you, your body requires them. You'll see them referred to as omegas, omega fatty acids, or, most commonly, as omega-3s. Before you rush off to buy expensive omega-3 supplements; there are better ways, and cheaper ways, and far more enjoyable ways of getting the benefits of omega-3s than popping a pricey pill. Many foods contain omega-3s, in fact there are enough foods that everyone should be able to find something they like and can easily incorporate into their everyday meals without requiring a great deal of effort or expense.

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They encourage our bodies to produce chemicals that reduce inflammation in our joints, our organs, and lower cholesterol. Omega-3s protect the integrity of cell membranes, seem to reduce the potential for heart disease and stroke by protecting the integrity of cell structures. Omega-3s work with omega-6 fatty acids. We need omega-6s because they help our blood clot. The catch is that too much omega-6s can cause problems. The solution is to include both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our meals because they work together. The trick is to consume omega-6 foods in the right proportion with omega-3s so that you gain the potential benefits. Nutritionists suggest that a realistic ratio is roughly 4 parts omega-3s to 1 part omega-6s.

There are three basic types of omega-3. They have long complicated chemical names, but are usually referred to as EPA, DHA, and ALA.

Our bodies need all three kinds of omega-3s, but we especially need EPA and DHA. These are both in cold water fatty fish—including herring, mackeral, sardines (even canned sardines), lake trout, and my favorites, salmon and tuna. Yes, that's right, ordinary canned tuna. A serving at least twice a week of any of these is a good idea, according to The American Heart Association. Nutritionists and other experts suggest consuming about 500 milligrams a day of omega-3s, including ALA, though they emphasize consuming foods rich in EPA and DHA, and that means cold-water fish.

ALA omega-3s are found especially in nuts and legumes. Specifically, tofu, and other foods derived from soybeans, canola (sunflower or safflower), walnuts, flaxseeds and oils made from them, as well as broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, grape leaves(think dolmas!), kidney beans, and spinach. A single ounce of walnuts has about 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acid ALA, and that gives you an idea of just how easy it is to modify your current diet. A handful of walnuts day, perhaps with oatmeal, or scattered over a spinach salad can be all you need for ALA per day.

Don't forget that you need about 1 part of omega-6 fatty acids for every 4 parts of omega-3s. Omega-6s are derived from oils, especially canola, corn, and peanut oils, soy, and sunflower oils. Most Americans have too much omega-6 in our diet. Remember you want to raise your omega-3 intake, and reduce (but not eliminate) omega-6. An easy, practical way to reduce omega-6 very quickly is to simply substitute olive oil for corn oil in cooking. If you make no other change to your diet, at least consider substituting olive oil for corn oil. You can use the same amount of olive oil in a recipe where you might ordinarily use corn oil.

Salmon: Easy to prepare, and rich in omega-3s.
Salmon: Easy to prepare, and rich in omega-3s. | Source

Pacific Salmon: Rich Source of Omega-3s

Pacific salmon are native to Alaska and the coastal waters of Washington state, Oregon, and California. All Pacific salmon spawn in the fresh water where their parents spawned them, and they spend part of their life at sea, and part in fresh (or brackish) water. Unlike Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon die once they have spawned.

The Five Types of Pacific Salmon

Chinook, the larges of the Pacific salmon, can weight as much as 120 pounds for a single fish. Their backs are spotted, and have a greenish-blue tinge. They can live aslong as seven years (one reason they can be so large) though most live only five or six years.

Chum live for three to five years, and can weigh as much as ten pounds. Chum are less common in terms of finding them at your local fish monger. Their flesh is a lighter pink to a medium red in hue. They are noticeably milder in flavor than Sockeye salmon.

Coho are especially popular with sport fishers because they can put up quite a struggle. Though they are relatively short-lived, typically living three years, Coho are lean, with dark red flesh. They can be as large as 15 pounds, though ten to twelve is more common.

Pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific varieties, and the shortest lived. They rarely live more than two years, and are generally not much more than four or five pounds. They're the commonest variety of salmon, and the variety usually found in a can.

Sockeye salmon are sometimes referred to as "bluebacks," because of their attractive blue and silver backs. This is the salmon that chefs and salmon devotees favor for its rich flavor and very firm flesh. Sockeye are eagerly caught all over the Pacific, from as far as Hokkaido, Japan, to the Columbia River in Oregon, and then up the coast all the way to Bristol Bay in Alaska. Known for their very dark red flesh, Sockeye typically weigh up to 7 pounds. Over the course of their four or five year life span they slowly increase in size, and during spawning season, their color changes to a definite dark red.

There are many ways to prepare and serve salmon, including those Pacific Northwest favorites, planked salmon, smoked salmon, salmon cakes, grilled or broiled salmon, and salmon salad, and the traditional companion for a bagel, lox.

Olives: Tasty and healthy
Olives: Tasty and healthy | Source

Olives and Olive Oil

The first time I saw an olive tree heavy with fruit, I excitedly picked an olive to try. Although it looked odd, covered with a thick sort of warty peel, I didn't realize that olives had to be cured before they were eaten. That olive was one of the worst things I've ever tried; it was intensely bitter; I was afraid I'd actually damaged my lips with the bitter juice.

The bitterness in an uncured olive is caused by oleuropein, a natural antioxidant. In order to make them edible, olives are usually treated by fermenting them, or processed with lye or bleach or brined and rinsed several times. Oleuropein isn't toxic or even harmful. On the contrary oleuropein is one of the reasons olives, once they've been properly prepared, or pressed to produce olive oil, are exceedingly good for us as well as tasty.

Olives are naturally high in both iron and vitamin E, and they're good sources of fiber and copper, as well as monounsaturated fats. They are also rich with polyphenols and flavonoids, both of which can reduce inflammation and are associated with reducing the risk of heart attacks. Olive oil, made by pressing olives and filtering the resulting oil, has many of the same helpful properties.

Olive oil is as least as important in Mediterranean cuisines as butter is in in French and Italian cuisines. Including olive oil in our menus, especially as a substitute for other oils, butter and other fats, can can help reduce our risk of heart disease by reducing the amount of LDL or "bad" cholesterol in our blood. According to the FDA, just 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day helps reduce the risk of heart disease. An especially effective way to include olive oil is to simply substitute olive oil for corn oil in our regular recipes and cooking. Try dipping fresh crusty break in a little olive oil, possibly enhanced with fresh herbs, instead of butter.

Kale: Tasty, and a source of the omega-3 ALA, fiber, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as vitamins A, C, K,  B6,  and calcium, potassium, copper and manganese.
Kale: Tasty, and a source of the omega-3 ALA, fiber, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as vitamins A, C, K, B6, and calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. | Source

Vegetables: Omega-3s, Fiber and Vitamins

To be honest, while some vegetables do contain omega-3s, they don't contain them in any thing like the quantities of, say, walnuts or fish like tuna, salmon or sardines. However, vegetables are great sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all of which we need in abundance. As a general rule, dark green leafy vegetables are your friend. Broccoli, spinach, kale and "greens" used in salads (and no, not iceberg lettuce) are all sources of the omega-3 known as ALA. Cabbage and brussel sprouts are also good choices in terms of ALA.

Walnuts: A tasty source of omega-3s and fiber.
Walnuts: A tasty source of omega-3s and fiber. | Source

Nuts, Whole Grains and Legumes

Legumes (better known as beans, lentils and peas to you and me) are rich sources of omega-3s. Kidney beans, soy beans (and products like tofu made from soy beans) and pinto beans are especially good sources of omega-3s.

Whole grains and other seeds are rich in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and several vitamins and minerals (selenium, potassium and magnesium). Whole grains refers to seeds of grass-like plants, including wheat, oats, bran, and corn, that are entire, that is, they haven't been refined or had their brans and germ removed by being milled. Brown rice, whole wheat, or pop corn are all examples of whole grains. Some whole grains are eaten as is, like brown rice, quinoa or pop corn. Others are used as ingredients, like the whole wheat of whole wheat bread. Try introducing flax seeds, and flax seed oil into your diet.

Learn to read labels regarding whole grain ingredients. If a label says "wheat flour," or "unbleached wheat flour," it isn't a whole grain. Watch for "whole grain" or "whole wheat" or "rye." Try switching to brown rice instead of white rice. Look for unsweetened granola or muesli; try them with kefir or yogurt and fruit. Try whole wheat pasta (look at your local co-op, health food store) or pasta made from half whole-wheat flour and half regular flour. Try oatmeal; add a handful of walnuts for an extra omega-3 boost.

Nuts are a great source of fiber, vitamin E, and omega-3s. Walnuts and flax seed are especially rich in omega-3s; scatter a handful over your morning oatmeal or museli, or add them to your salad. Pecans and pine nuts (pignola) along with sunflower seeds are also sources of omega-3s. Oils made from nuts are beneficial too; for instance, walnut oil as a base for salad dressing. Almonds are surprisingly low in omega-3s, and quite high in omega-6, so try swapping almonds for walnuts.

Red wine: An integral and healthy part of a Mediterranean diet.
Red wine: An integral and healthy part of a Mediterranean diet. | Source

Red Wine: It's Good for You

While scientists and researchers usually attribute the efficacy of red wine to antioxidants, we do know a little bit more about it than that. One of the primary compounds in red wine is resveratrol, a natural component of grapes, pomegranates, red wine and other foods. The protective effects of resveratrol may be responsible for the so-called "French paradox," in which people who live in parts of France where the typical diet is rich with saturated fats, but where the incidence of heart disease is strikingly lower than in the U.S. may in fact be protected by the traditional habit of red wine with dinner.

One fortunate side effect of resveratrol appears to be natural calorie restriction. In a study where mice were given low doses of resveratrol, they showed every positive sign of having a diet reduced in total calories by 20 or 30%— without actually having had their diet changed. A reduced calorie diet can help extend our potential lifespan as well as reduce some of the impact of aging.

If you're not already drinking wine, resveratrol is not a reason to start binge drinking. Researchers note that the positive effects of red wine are all derived from red wine "in moderation." What "in moderation" means is a little trickier; one source suggests moderation means one glass of red wine for women, and one or two glasses for men in the U. S., but in the United Kingdom, and the European Union, "moderation" apparently translates to two to three glasses of red wine per day for women, and three to four for men. Drink moderately, with meals, and emphasizing red wine versus white wine seems to be the shared practice in France, Spain, and Italy.

Assuming that you are especially interested in emphasizing the flavinoids associated with red wine and antioxidents, University of California at Davis researchers tested and measured the flavonoids in a severa red wine varietals. They concluded that in general Cabernet Sauvignon is your option for a flavinoid-rich red, with Petit Syrah and Pinot Noir the second and third choices. Merlots and Red Zinfandel fared poorly in terms of the flavonoids, and white wine poorer still.

As a basic principal, the dryer the wine, the greater the number of flavonoids, and the sweeter the wine, the fewer the flavinoids. A research scientist in Scotland, Dr. Alan Crozier from Glasgow University engaged a comparative study of 65 red wines, and concluded that Chilean wines tend to have much higher concentrates of flavonoids than wines from elsewhere. Dr. Crozier suggests that this is because Chilean grapes are typically grown in a warm dry climate where they can fully mature and ripen before they are picked. In particular, Dr. Crozier praised Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots, and Pino Noirs as sources of flavinoids.


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