The Mediterranean Diet recently made front page news after it was ranked the 3rd most popular diet of 2013 by online news site, Huffington Post. This is most likely due to the stunning results of a five-year Spanish study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine last year.
Why all the excitement? We’ve known about the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet for years. But this study was the first major randomized clinical trial (the gold standard of scientific research proving cause and effect) that used meaningful endpoints, including heart attack, stroke and death. These showed the dramatic benefits of following a Mediterranean diet.
How to plan your Mediterranean diet meal plan and shopping list
The Mediterranean Diet has long been celebrated as the gold standard of healthy diets. A single definition of the Mediterranean diet is difficult because there are more than the 18 countries with coastlines on the Mediterranean Sea. But there are general food patterns that unify the diets of the region. So, in a nutshell (yes, nuts are a component of the world’s healthiest diet!), here’s how to create a meal plan in order to reap the incredible health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet:
1. Make extra virgin olive oil your main fat
Hippocrates called olive oil “the great therapeutic” and 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 food source of vitamin E, a major dietary antioxidant vitamin.
To take advantage of “liquid gold,” keep a small opaque herb-infused bottle of EVOO on your kitchen counter, and use it in all types of cooking. Coat vegetables or fish generously before roasting or grilling. Dress salads with an easy olive oil Vinaigrette. Drizzle olive oil over potatoes, bean soups, grains, and steamed vegetables to enhance their flavor.
2. Eat greens and colourful vegetables at every lunch and dinner
Fresh, colorful vegetables (think dark green spinach; juicy red tomatoes; or crunchy, bright orange bell peppers) keep our arteries healthy and clean. Head for your green grocer and buy veggies fresh and often—a spectrum of healthy colors is nature’s medicine chest. Vegetables are chock full of myriad polyphenols (the major disease battling phytochemical). Here are a few simple ideas to help you harness the power of plants.
- Eat a dark green salad at lunch and dinner when eating in or out (remember to dress simply with EVOO and vinegar or fresh lemon juice).
- Toss your favorite prewashed, bagged, and prechopped vegetables on a sheet of tin foil, drizzle with EVOO, and roast at 425°F for at least 30 minutes.
3. Eat fruit (and lots of it!)
Eating a variety of different types of fruit every day is great for your heart: aim to “mix ’n’ match” for the most nutritional benefits. Try Mediterranean-style fruits such as figs or pomegranate; vitamin C-rich fruit like kiwi; and don’t forget the other fruits such as apples or bananas. Start your day with berries at breakfast, and end it with fruit for dessert. Add figs or dried fruits to your lunchtime salad (think cranberries, apricots, or currants) for a delicious touch that provides a feast of antioxidants. And if you just can’t go to bed without a little something sweet, try some dried figs.
4. Eat lentils or other legumes every day
Lentils are an age-old part of the culinary culture of the Mediterranean diet. These nutrition giants are 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.
To get more legumes into your day, snack on fresh raw veggies dipped in hummus; sprinkle a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas or kidney beans into your salad, eat legume-based soups such as lentil, split pea, black bean, pasta e fagioli, or minestrone, or snack on edamame (delectable baby soybeans) available as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants or frozen at your local supermarket.
5. Eat fish, often
It’s called the “Eskimo factor.” As early as 1944, scientists began to document that Greenland Eskimos had virtually no heart disease. The Eskimos’ diet was low in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates, but loaded with oily seafood such as whale and seal meat. This provided the Eskimos with a huge daily dose of fish oil (about 15 grams).
Fish oil is a centerpiece of the Mediterranean Diet and is rich in the superbly heart-healthy marine omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Choose fish over red meat to replicate the Eskimo factor for yourself! Go to your local fish monger and be sure to buy really fresh fish (don’t be shy about asking to smell the fish—and if it has a fishy smell, stay away!). I buy fresh fish in bulk and cut it into individual servings, wrap in wax paper, label, and freeze.
If you eat out, frequent a steak house, where you can almost always find salmon or a tuna steak on the menu. Just be sure to order it grilled and simply dressed with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Consider a can of water-packed albacore tuna served over your greens for lunch with olive oil vinaigrette.
6. Eat walnuts
Walnuts have sustained humans since the dawn of civilization—and they’re key to the Mediterranean diet 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).
Here are a few ideas for getting walnuts into your day.
- Keep a bag of shelled walnuts on your kitchen counter for a quick and healthy snack. Sprinkle crushed walnuts on a fat-free Greek yogurt with a little honey for a nutritious and satisfying dessert.
- Sprinkle walnuts on your green salads.
- Or try candied walnuts —just bake with a little brown sugar for a sweet treat.
7. Eat whole grains such as oatmeal
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh and natural foods over those that are processed and refined. Grains contain three botanically defined parts – the bran, the endosperm, and the germ—and by eating natural whole grains you’re getting all three parts, which packs a powerful nutritional punch.
- Aim for a minimum of three servings of whole grains a day.
- Snack on popcorn (yes, it’s a whole grain!).
- Season with a few sprays of olive oil and a touch of parmesan cheese or brown sugar — depending on if you crave salty or sweet.
- 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, and reheat daily servings for a heart-disease-prevention breakfast in minutes. Choose 100% percent whole grain bagels, breads, and muffins for your sandwiches.
8. Drink red wine with dinner
Red wine, another key part of the Mediterranean Diet, is known to reduce the risk of heart attack due to its cache of powerful antioxidant polyphenols. Be sure to pick red wine over white: it has ten times more polyphenol content. One caveat: moderation is the magic word, meaning a little is good, and a lot is not better. Wine is beneficial for your health only in moderation. Enjoy one glass a night with dinner and let your heart reap the benefits.
9. Eat deep dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is the new guilt-free super food! The scientific evidence is stacking up. There is a clear link between daily consumption of deep, dark chocolate with phenomenal health benefits, especially on your heart and blood vessels. Cap off your day with a nightly cup of steaming, decadent homemade hot chocolate (mix 2 heaping spoonfuls of dark chocolate natural unsweetened cocoa powder, a touch of sweetener or sugar substitute, and soy milk and microwave). Remember, to satisfy your chocolate craving and fortify your heart disease defense strategy simultaneously, think real cocoa rather than solid chocolate bars. Natural unsweetened cocoa powder has the highest concentration of flavanols of all chocolate products, plus is low in sugar, fat and calories.
10. Be physically active—EXERCISE!
The Mediterranean lifestyle is an active lifestyle—regular physical activity reduces your risk for heart disease. It’s important to make an effort, every day, to get off the couch and get those sneakers on! Exercise is the best medicine for promoting healing, improving your joie de vivre, and especially for releasing harmful plaque-promoting stress. Start slow and make walking (or any other exercise you love) a priority in your life, just like keeping your appointments.
So which of these components are most important? Actually, there’s no winner; scientists concur that the whole Mediterranean package confers the health benefits. And remember, eating like a Mediterranean is as much lifestyle as it is a diet.
Imagine yourself sitting down to a leisurely meal of 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.
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!
10 Point Mediterranean lifestyle key component checklist:
DAILY food #1: Extra virgin olive oil (minimum one tablespoon per day)
DAILY food #2: Omega-3 fat (short chain plant version, “ALA”—flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil—minimum once per day)
DAILY food #3: Legumes (beans, peas or lentils; minimum once/day)
DAILY food #4: Vegetables (green, orange or purple in color, minimum two meals/day)
DAILY food #5: Whole grains (oatmeal, 100% whole grain bread, popcorn, brown rice; minimum two meals/day and preferably at every meal)
DAILY food #6: Fresh fruit (minimum two servings per day)
DAILY food #7: Nuts (minimum: handful/day)
DAILY food #8: Red wine (maximum one glass per day for women, 2 glasses for men)
WEEKLY food #9: Omega-3 fat (long-chain animal version, “EPA/DHA”)- omega-3-rich (EPA/DHA) fish such as salmon, halibut, albacore tuna, mackerel, sardines”——minimum two times/week)
WEEKLY food #10: weekly consumption of a small amount of low-fat or fat-free dairy (such as strong flavorful cheeses and yogurt), several servings per week;
Physical activity (minimum 30 minutes aerobic exercise per day)