As one colleague once put it, “We’re not getting out of this alive.” But if I could adopt a lifestyle that might yield a few more years on this earth or perhaps improve the quality of my later years, what would it be?
The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan originally inspired by the dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, Spain and Morocco in the 1940s and 1950s. This is really more of a lifestyle shift than a true diet.
The plan focuses on high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined grains, fruits, and vegetables with moderate to high consumption of fish. Dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt) and wine are consumed in moderate amounts with low consumption of meat and meat products.
So let’s turn these guidelines into some practical suggestions for the East Texas palate. Remember that small changes over time add up to great health benefits. This time of year it’s natural for us to eat more vegetables. The farmers’ market and home gardens provide ample fresh produce. Instead of fried squash, let’s sauté it in olive oil with garlic and onions. In order to eat less meat, we need to identify more meatless meals that do not compromise flavor. One of my favorites is a homegrown tomato sandwich. And with cucumbers so abundant, try them in a little red wine vinegar and a dash of coarse black pepper. Fresh onion adds zip to this simple salad.
We will not always be in prime harvest season so think ahead to that meal of pinto beans, collard greens and cornbread this fall. Find a replacement for meat at breakfast. How about yogurt or reduced fat milk, fresh fruit with whole wheat toast and walnuts or pecans. Let’s expand our fish choices to include grilled rather than fried catfish. Choose salmon or red snapper and grill or sauté in olive oil with fresh lemon. Serve with a salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a tzatziki dressing (a sauce of yogurt, diced cucumber, lemon and garlic). Pita chips dip well in the same tzatziki or in a bit of humus.
Research has shown that people who adopt a Mediterranean diet and stay active are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. Mediterranean-style meals loaded with vegetables, fruits and grains are higher in fiber, are quite filling and this reduces the desire to add extra calories.
More vegetables, fruits and grains with less meat makes this plan consistent with the American Cancer Society recommendation to follow a plant based diet meaning that this eating plan lowers our risk of cancer.
Because the Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fat (less meat) and high in monounsaturated fat (olive oil, nuts, avocados) and dietary fiber (fruits and vegetables), it lowers heart disease risk. The antioxidants in olive oil reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and have other anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive effects. Recent research found that a Mediterranean diet is more effective than a low-fat diet in making long-term changes to lower heart disease risk.
The heart healthy benefit of this plan does not appear to be genetically inherent in those who live around the Mediterranean. When healthy middle-aged adults in the Mediterranean region change from an active lifestyle and Mediterranean diet to a less physically active lifestyle and a more typical western pattern, incidence of heart disease goes up. It is not clear whether the diet or the activity plays the greater role.
If you enjoy flavors, textures and variety in foods, consider adopting the guidelines of the Mediterranean diet. With a glass of red wine, good company and a terrace overlooking the bluest water on the planet, one can find a few moments of serenity in today’s hectic world.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.