Every year millions of us decide to eat better in an attempt to be more healthful. Every year millions of us return to our fast-food, fat-ladened, far-from-healthy eating habits.
Count me among those millions. In the past few years, I’ve made some changes in my eating habits, and while I’ve done fairly well, I’m looking for more. Mainly, I’m interested in an anti-inflammatory diet — a way of eating and living — to help with a few health concerns that have cropped up recently. In my research, the Mediterranean diet appears to be the go-to eating plan, not only for weight loss but to combat inflammation, a component of many of our modern-day disorders such as fibromyalgia, heart diseases, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease, if recent studies are any indication. It’s a heart-healthy, brain-healthy menu that benefits from vegetables, fruit, fish, high-fiber and whole grains, and healthy fats.
How can one way of eating help with all of those conditions? While it may be simplistic to say, this way of eating is simple, and full of flavor and natural foods that are good for our stressed-out human bodies–and minds. It may not be so easy to adapt to our current eating, however. We are, after all, a society that cherishes our take-out menus, store-to-door delivery, and little-used kitchens containing the microwave we need for heating up leftovers.
Let’s take a closer look and see what all the fuss is about.
In a Mediterranean diet food pyramid created by Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a nonprofit focused on food and nutrition education, the base for each meal is comprised of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, and seeds, herbs and spices. Supporting the base of the pyramid is the suggestion to be physically active and enjoy meals with other people.
Blogger Suzy Karadsheh calls the Mediterranean “diet” a lifestyle, eschewing the ‘d’ word as limiting and unhelpful. She is also a major fan of sharing meals with family and friends, which she enjoyed during her years growing up, as a way of socializing and as a means to help us eat more slowly — a major concern for many of us seeking to become healthier.
As far as being physically active, Suzy realizes those living in the Mediterranean region (which includes Greece, Italy, Turkey and Spain) rarely exercise as we in the U.S. define the word. People in the region do more manual labor, climb more stairs, and walk everywhere. Not exactly a lifestyle we’re familiar with in our country. Suzy suggests finding a moderate exercise (for example, walking) that each of us can make a sustainable, daily habit.
One thing you will notice about the Oldways pyramid: Fish and other seafood are emphasized more than poultry and dairy, which are emphasized more than red meats and sweets. Now this doesn’t mean one has to completely give up steak and chocolate; it simply suggests a moderate approach.
Where do we start? First, let’s take a look at the pantry for what you have, what you need, and what you don’t need (and probably should avoid).
Olive oil is the main fat in the Mediterranean way of eating. Fat is necessary for a healthy diet, even though we often try to eliminate it from our menus. Our bodies require fat to function; it helps us absorb needed nutrients, helps build cell membranes and the sheaths covering our nerves. It allows us to move, helping the muscles do their work, and it is needed for blood clotting and to fight inflammation. Fat is no longer the enemy but a necessary ally in our fight for better health.
Of course, there is a caveat: Choose wisely. You’re looking for monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated or trans fats like margarine. In other words, liquid fats such as olive oil and other plant-based oils are good choices. Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated fats. For the polyunsaturated versions, look for walnuts and items like flax seed or fatty fish (salmon is a good one).
Avoid bakery goods and fried foods, particularly the fast-food kind, and lower your use of butter or lard. It’s OK to use butter and/or lard, just don’t overdo it, and use more olive oil in their place and eliminate margarine.
Protein sources preferred by those in the Mediterranean region include fish and seafood. You can still eat chicken and lean cuts of red meat; simply substitute fish and seafood frequently and don’t rely on red meat exclusively. Avoid processed meats such as bacon, sausage or pepperoni.
Include fatty fish (here’s the salmon again, or mackerel, sardines, trout) at least twice a week; other fish such as cod or tilapia are good too. Lower your poultry intake to only once or twice a week. (Moderation is key!) Reduce your intake of dairy products such as cheese or yogurt, and eggs. Finally, eat red meat less often.
Fruits and vegetables are mainstays of the Mediterranean way of eating, as are whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and legumes. Base each meal on these choices; increase your veggie and fruit intake to encompass every meal. Go for grains in their natural or whole form (those that haven’t been processed beyond recognition). Add quinoa, barley, oatmeal, wheat and other whole grains to the mix. Try adding more whole-grain versions of pastas and rice, substituting blends for the refined types a bit at a time until you’re eating all whole grains. Even if you bake your own bread, substitute part of the white flour for wheat flour; experiment with different flours and different proportions.
When snacking, go for veggies and hummus or nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pistachios, even cashews. A little goes a long way with those fat-filled nuts.
Forgo the sweets; substitute fruit instead. Like red meat, keep sweets to a minimum.
Red wine is a favorite of the Mediterranean people. Enjoy a glass at meals, however, don’t overindulge. The New England Journal of Medicine recommends 3 ounces for women and 5 ounces for men per day. Sip it with a meal or simply enjoy a glass now and then.
One thing: If you currently do not drink, don’t add wine just for this eating plan.
Spices and herbs are important to this type of lifestyle. Both add flavor to foods without adding fat or sugar, which we’re looking to avoid. Don’t be hesitant to experiment with herbs; a dash of this or a dash of that might be just what the doctor ordered.
Any newsfeed you subscribe to will daily bombard you with articles on exercise and a healthy lifestyle. A Mediterranean lifestyle definitely includes exercise, but you don’t have to go to the gym unless you want to (if you like going to the gym, go for it). As Suzy mentions in her blog, those living in the Mediterranean region make movement part of their everyday routine. They walk everywhere; climb stairs; do manual labor; they keep moving. All of those things are not necessarily part of our everyday worlds in the U.S. We sit in front of a computer, rarely moving during the day, then we wonder why we’re so tired when we get home at night as we plop on the couch and turn on the television.
It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but moving will help us be less tired. Work in a walk for your morning and afternoon breaks; include a brisk walk during your lunch hour; take a few minutes before you go into the house to walk around the block; park the car farther away from the store’s front door when you run errands; take the stairs instead of the elevator. We have myriad opportunities to add movement to our day, we just need to take advantage.
Look for ways to move or stand instead of sitting all day. Go for a swim, jog with a friend, throw a ball around with your children in your backyard or go to the park. Join a yoga, tai chi, aerobics, Pilates, or CrossFit class. Do something you enjoy, do it with a friend, do it four or five days a week, but do it.
Another aspect of the Mediterranean way of life that many people ignore is interacting with other people. Suzy, in her blog The Mediterranean Dish, suggests eating each meal with other people as a way of slowing down our eating and adding laughter and fun to our lives.
Many of us live alone, making it more difficult to take this step. I know this is something I struggle with on a regular basis. One way I combat spending too much time alone is to accept most invitations from friends, and to extend my own invitations to go to lunch, go to a movie or go for a walk.
Socialization is up to the individual. Remember laughter is good for the body and the soul, and eating with others aids in digestion and results in better food choices. Plus it’s just plain fun.
Another area where we in the U.S. struggle is to simplify our lives. We’re all so concerned with keeping up with the Joneses down the block that we lose sight of what we’re allowing into our lives. Declutter your home, minimize waste, slow down; all foreign concepts to many of us.
As Suzy writes in her blog, “Live more simply…many (people) I encountered across the places I’ve been tend to have far fewer possessions than I do living here in the States. And I’ve also observed that they make stewardship decisions when it comes to daily needs. Take food for example: Mediterranean folks don’t buy too much of any one ingredient. The whole concept of buying in bulk remains foreign to them. Eating fresh matters, and they don’t mind making multiple trips to the market–on foot, mostly.”
My worry has always been purchasing too much if I go to the grocery store more than once a week. Though there is no reason why I can’t buy fewer items each trip and simply increase the number of times I go to the store. Of course, that means I will really need to stick to a list!
Making the Change
Moving to a Mediterranean way of eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The plan is basically common sense, making better choices, adding more vegetables and fruit, and making fewer trips through a drive-through window.
It can be done one step at a time; no need to totally overhaul everything at once. Cook at home a few more times a week rather than going out. When you do go out, choose a salad or vegetarian dish once a week rather than another cheeseburger and fries. Gradually increase the times you select those dishes at your favorite sit-down restaurants.
Shop for veggies and fruits rather than cookies and candy. Cut back on the sugar and fat a bit at a time. Work your way up to 30 minutes of exercise five days a week–don’t overdo it at the beginning. It’s easier to add a few minutes each week than trying to hit that 30-minute mark from day one.
Avail yourself of all the resources out there: blogs, articles, books. Add one new recipe a week until you have a sound repertoire of menu items; no need to become a gourmet chef. Select simple, flavorful recipes that you and your family like, and rotate those rather than trying to dazzle everyone with an exotic dish every night.
Add to the spice and herb pantry. Slowly increase your use of olive oil. Build up your collection of recipes using fish and seafood.
Take it one step at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be healthier with more energy and more laughter in your life. Good luck!