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Live and eat healthier—the Mediterranean way

Canadians may not have the luxury of living among the beauty and warmth of the Mediterranean but we can gain many health benefits by adapting the Mediterranean way of life.

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—countries like Greece, Italy and Spain. Although it’s often referred to as a ‘diet’ it’s more appropriately named a ‘lifestyle’. Unlike a typical ‘diet’ that is often restrictive and unsatisfying, this plan is packed with a variety of flavourful balanced options. Generally, it’s a plant-based healthy eating plan that incorporates the rich flavour of healthy fats with olive oil, olives, nuts and seeds, as well as cheese, and even red wine, if desired.

Equally as important as the foods you choose is the meal preparation and atmosphere in which you enjoy your meals. In our fast-paced world, meal preparation and consumption has turned into an inconvenience, drawing us more towards the processed and prepared foods while eating on the run. The Mediterranean diet brings us back to the mindfulness of eating and enjoying the social aspect of food, while savouring each bite.

Heart healthy

The Mediterranean diet is best known for its heart-healthy benefits in lowering risk of heart disease, and other risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes. One large study showed that the Mediterranean diet had a 73 per cent reduction in death and heart attacks compared to a low-fat diet. The benefits don’t stop there. More and more research is showing increased lifespan, lower incidences and risk of death from certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, improved symptoms of arthritis, eye health, weight loss and weight maintenance.

Never too late

The longer you follow the Mediterranean diet, the better the health benefits, but even starting this diet later in life has advantages. One study in particular, showed that middle-aged women who followed the diet for 15 years had a 40 per cent reduction in disease and better physical and mental health in their 70s compared to those who did not follow this diet.

Generally, for weight loss, there is no one diet that works best. Most plans will result in weight loss but the challenge is sticking to it in the long-term. Comparing a low-fat diet to a Mediterranean diet, not only did the Mediterranean group lose more weight, at the end of the 18-month study, 54 per cent of people stuck to the diet versus only 20 per cent on the low-fat diet.

Why it works

While the reason for the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits is not fully understood, there are several speculations. Most supported is its ability to reduce chronic inflammation throughout the body therefore reducing risk of chronic disease. Additionally, the high antioxidants content may act as an army to fight off and repair disease-causing cell damage. As for the diet itself, there doesn’t seem to be a particular disease-fighting food or nutrient but more so the eating pattern as a whole. There’s no one way to follow the Mediterranean diet; there’s even variety within the countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Focus more on incorporating the key components and adapt it to suit your preferences and lifestyle. Also, consider how you approach change: most people need to make changes slowly. Start by making the easiest changes first and proceed from there.

Make it plant based.

Incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your daily meals. You don’t have to settle for plain Jane either. Drizzle your steamed vegetables with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar or squeeze of lemon and slivered almonds or pine nuts. Make a salad with mixed greens, dried fruit, chickpeas, beets, fresh Parmesan and walnuts.

Look for products (pasta, cereals, crackers and breads) made with whole grain, whole wheat, oats, millet, quinoa, barley, rye, and corn. ‘Wheat’ or ‘enriched wheat’ means it’s made with white flour.

Go meatless more often.

Incorporate more legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils). They’re inexpensive, provide a source of protein, low in fat and high in fibre. Make a mixed bean salad; a great staple to have on hand. Eat on its own, topped on crackers or over a bed of greens. Think of hummus not only as a dip but also as a spread on a sandwich or wrap.

If meatless isn’t your deal, try cutting back on the meat in your dishes and substitute with legumes. Some great options include black beans in burgers, omelets, pasta sauce and on a pizza. Try lentils in casseroles, soups, or even blended into baked goods such as muffins and loaves.

Choose fish as a regular dish.

Aim to eat fish and shellfish at least twice a week. All fish is healthy but fattier fishes provide the added benefit of omega-3. These include salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines. Have canned salmon on hand when you can’t get to the store to pick up fresh. People often turn their nose up at canned sardines. Look for boneless and skinless brands if that’s what turns you off.

Protein as a side.

Minimize your animal protein intake ideally to 3-oz servings and always choose leaner cuts. Limit beef to a couple times per month. Choose eggs and skinless chicken instead.

Dairy products

Low fat milk, yogurt and cheese can be enjoyed in moderate amounts. For yogurt, choose unsweetened options and sweeten with fruit, a tablespoon of jam or drizzle with honey or maple syrup. It’ll still have less sugar than most sweetened varieties.

Incorporate healthy fats.

Replace butter and margarine with extra virgin olive oil. Dip bread in oil and balsamic vinegar or use as a dressing. Enjoy almond or peanut butter, tahini, avocado or pesto as a spread or dip. Snack on nuts and seeds, toss them over a salad and mix in with fruit and vegetable.

Quench your thirst.

Make water your main hydrator. For the snazzier side of H2O, add some slices of fruit or berries to your glass, add squeezable lime and lemon juice or an herbal tea bag. Have carbonated water with a splash of juice. Do like the Greeks (only if you drink alcohol) and enjoy a glass of wine at your meal. Women should limit to one five-ounce serving per day and men no more than two per day.

Spice things up.

Limit the salt and add flavour with herbs, spices, citrus zest and juice, wine and vinegars. Use whichever spices you like but traditional Mediterranean cuisine includes nutmeg, oregano, thyme, chilies, parsley and garlic. Serve your dishes with a slice of lemon.

Tame the sweet tooth with fruit. Any sugar lover would argue fruit is an unsatisfying trade for sugary decadence. Make the transition an easier one and think outside the realm of typical plain fruit. Treat yourself to exotic options like mango, fresh figs, lime juice squeezed over papaya. Drizzle balsamic vinegar over strawberries, cut a grapefruit in half, sprinkle with cinnamon and broil until lightly browned. Bake halved apples, peaches or pears sprinkled with cinnamon, raisins, and walnuts and add a dollop of yogurt. Blend frozen banana to make ice cream or choose sorbet. Make a fruit salad and add pistachios and dried fruit.

Maureen Tilley is a registered dietitian and author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!

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