EAT LIKE YOU’RE MEDITERRANEAN – It’s Not A Fad, It’s A Lifestyle
By Jenny Harrison, Jen Mactavish, and Brianne Ozimok
You may have heard of the Mediterranean Diet, which was named the best overall diet for 2021 according to rankings announced by U.S. News & World Report. It has actually held this title since 2018!
Unlike fad diets, which tend to be restrictive, difficult to sustain, gimmicky, and not healthy for us (even potentially harmful), a Mediterranean diet is more of a way of life. Mediterranean eating patterns include an abundance of high-quality, fresh foods enjoyed with others, and eaten in a mindful way. The opposite of restrictive, a Mediterranean diet embraces the many health properties of a wide variety of food and acknowledges the benefits of eating together with others whenever possible.
Forget multi-tasking and cramming food in between or during other activities, the Mediterranean way of eating encourages us to prioritize our meals by stopping to nourish our minds and bodies regularly throughout the day, every day. In fact, many Mediterranean countries protect time for that sacred mid-day meal and rest (siesta), by closing workplaces for prolonged lunches, giving people a chance to refuel for the second half of their day.
So, what’s the big deal about the Mediterranean diet (Med diet) and why should you consider adopting it? A Med diet is a traditional eating pattern that reflects the food culture from countries that surround the Mediterranean. Health care researchers took interest in the food culture in these regions decades ago, when it was discovered that people in certain Mediterranean countries tended to live longer, healthier lives.
This eating pattern has been around for thousands of years, and now has loads of high-quality research behind it. You can read some of the studies on the Oldways website, which highlights the many health benefits including:
- Improved brain function
- Decreased risk of chronic diseases
- Lowered risk of certain cancers
- Reduced risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and elevated ‘bad’ cholesterol levels
- Diabetes prevention
- Better-managed depression
- Protection from Alzheimer’s disease
- Decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease
- Improved rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
- Improved eye health
- Reduced risk of dental disease
- Improved breathing
- Longer life
Now that I have your attention, you might be wondering how to get started. You don’t have to pack your bags for a trip to Greece or Malta to enjoy a Mediterranean diet (but wouldn’t that be nice!). A peek through your own kitchen cupboards and a trip to the grocery store can give you everything you need. Consider some of the following hallmarks of a Med diet and start with the components you feel would be easiest, most realistic, and most helpful for you and your family.
Get together. Cook and eat meals with your family and friends (when safe to do so, of course!). Get your kids in the kitchen from a young age. They can help stir, tear lettuce, wipe the table, name and count food, add ingredients into bowls, help measure… the options are endless! Research shows us this can also help prevent and manage picky eating.
Fresh is best. Choose homemade, whole foods most of the time, while limiting the amount of processed and pre-packaged foods you consume.
Eat your veggies. Your Mom was right, you need to eat a wide variety of colourful vegetables every day. Aiming for half a plate of vegetables at lunch and supper every day will help you reach the recommended four servings (2-4 cups) each day. One serving of vegetables is equivalent to a half a cup of cooked or raw vegetables or one cup of leafy greens. Variety is key, both for getting in all of those great nutrients and to prevent you from getting bored. Half a plate of peas twice every day wouldn’t excite many of us. Fresh, frozen, raw, cooked – choose what you like and even better, spread your wings and try adding new vegetables or old favourites cooked in new and interesting ways.
Fruit rainbows. Enjoy the many health benefits that fresh fruits have to offer. The goal for this is three servings a day – a serving of fruit is half a cup or a tennis ball-sized apple, orange, peach, etc. Again, include a variety of richly coloured fruit (berries, melon, mango, etc.) to maximize your nutrient intake (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre). Consider choosing fruit that is in season or frozen fruit to help with the budget. If you choose canned, try and pick the ones that are packed in water or its own juice instead of syrup. Add a handful of berries to your cereal, oatmeal or salad, and choose fruit for dessert with lunch and dinner. Go for the whole fruit instead of fruit juices.
Oil up. Olive oil is one of the most important components of the Med diet. Consider replacing some other fats in your fridge or cupboard with this nutrient powerhouse. When you think of all your added fats (butter, margarine, canola oil, salad dressings, coconut oil, etc.), the goal is that olive oil will make up the majority of fat in your diet. Try and choose an extra virgin olive oil in a dark container. Keep this in a dark, cool cupboard to keep it as fresh as possible and help to retain all of the great nutrients it has. Another tip is choosing an olive oil with a harvest or production date and trying to use it within 18 months of this. It shouldn’t be hard when you’re using it as your main added fat! Check the Oldways website for more information about the benefits of olive oil, how to choose the best, and for more ideas on how to regularly include it in your meals. Check out your local olive oil retailers and maybe even do some taste testing.
Plant power. Consider incorporating more plant proteins into your meals – Meatless Monday anyone? Legumes are affordable, versatile, and nutrient dense. Aim to include three or more servings of things like lentils, chickpeas, and beans (black, kidney, pinto, etc.) each week. A serving of cooked legumes is half a cup. If you can’t imagine a meatless meal, start by mixing them with your meat. Add lentils to your meatloaf, tacos, and pasta sauce. Throw a can of beans in your soup or dip your veggies in hummus or a delicious bean dip. If you aren’t used to eating legumes, you may need to increase these gradually to allow your stomach to get used to them without any gassy side effects.
Getting fishy. In addition to plant proteins, marine proteins are a staple in a Med diet. Include fish and seafood two to three times per week. Choose fatty fish like salmon, trout, char, sardines, mackerel and herring at least twice for healthier Omega-3 fats. Mussels, oysters, and clams are other good alternatives. A salmon or tuna sandwich counts! You don’t have to spend lots of money on expensive filets.
Mix your meats. Choose lean white meat more often than red and processed meat, though the goal is to decrease your overall portions of meat. Think of a deck of cards when you are portioning your meat. Try using ground turkey or chicken instead of ground beef or using a few pieces of leftover chicken breast on your sandwich instead of ham, summer sausage or other deli meats.
Go nuts. Nuts are another nutrient powerhouse and important part of a Med diet. Include nuts as part of your snacks (with a piece of fruit), or as a topper on salads, oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt, and include nut or seed butters (almond butter, peanut butter, tahini) on toast or as part of sauces and dressings. Including three servings of nuts each week will help you obtain more important fibres, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, proteins, and heart healthy fats that can improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and help hold your appetite between meals.
Drink mostly water. Try and avoid sugar sweetened drinks like pop, juice, iced tea and specialty coffees. Try flavouring water with fresh or frozen fruit, fresh herbs like mint, cucumber, or even an apple slice and cinnamon stick. The Med diet also includes wine in moderation. Do not start drinking if you don’t already or if you have been told to avoid alcohol. If you already drink, you may consider switching your beer or liquor out for a 4 or 5 oz glass of wine. Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines recommend no more than two drinks per day for women, no more than five days per week, and no more than three drinks per day for men, no more than five days per week. One drink equals 12 oz of beer or 5 oz of wine or 1.5 oz of liquor. Sorry, you can’t save up and drink them all on the weekend!
Now that you have some ideas about the important foods that make a Med diet so beneficial, your mouth is probably watering! One of the best parts of Med diet is the mindful eating that it embraces. When you have a beautiful colourful nutritious plate of food in front of you, you can really savour every bite by sitting at the table and eating mindfully without distractions. Put your screens away (unless you have a dinner date over Zoom with a loved one, of course). Eating mindfully, the Mediterranean way, helps us get more enjoyment from our food, and helps us listen to our body’s hunger and fullness cues.
The Med diet also recommends finding ways to be active every day. So, turn up the music and dance around your house or lace up those boots or sneakers and head out for a walk!
Remember, start with one thing and once you are consistently doing this, pick another to work on. If you have more questions, look for a Registered Dietitian in your area or call Telehealth to speak to one for free.
Jenny Harrison, Jen Mactavish, and Brianne Ozimok are Registered Dieticians with the Brockton & Area Family Health Team.
Learn more about the Family Health Team at www.bafht.com or call to speak to one of the dietitians today.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 edition of Grey-Bruce Kids.