What are we supposed to eat? We hear so many messages every day about foods that are good for us and foods that are bad for us. We also hear messages about things like strokes, heart disease, cancer and obesity that are related to what we eat. Has anyone formulated a comprehensive diet plan that takes all of these different messages into account?
What we know is that the stereotypical American diet is not particularly healthy. Some doctors have gone so far as to call it toxic. The stereotypical American diet contains too much sugar, too many refined and processed foods, too much saturated fat, not enough fiber and not nearly enough in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables.
So what are the alternatives? You could go vegan. That would cut out the bad stuff and greatly increase fruits, vegetables and fiber. But a strictly vegan diet may not be as healthy as some would have you believe. And there are several practicality issues as well.
What we need is a diet that is simple, practical and relatively easy to fit into the American food landscape. It also needs to taste great. That diet may be the Mediterranean diet, which is quite common in many parts of Europe. In one recent study, scientists have been examining the lifestyle of a 114-year-old Spaniard. His Mediterranean diet is one of the key factors identified as leading to his longevity.
What are the key differences between the Mediterranean diet and the stereotypical American diet? One thing is the elimination of processed foods and sugars. Processed foods are replaced with whole foods; sweets are replaced with fruits.
Another is a dramatic increase in fiber. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts.
Another is a change in the types of meats consumed. Instead of the red meats high in saturated fats found in the stereotypical American diet, the Mediterranean diet instead focuses on things like chicken, fish and seafood.
There are several other notable changes as well. One of the more important is the regular consumption of moderate amounts of red wine.
Typical consumption might be a 3- to 5-ounce glass of red wine with dinner every night. The redder the better, because one of the key ingredients in red wine that you are trying to consume is a chemical called resveratrol, an antioxidant. Small amounts of alcohol may actually help with heart disease prevention as well.
Another is the use of olive oil. People on the Mediterranean diet are consuming a fairly large quantity of fat, but the fats in things like olive oil, nuts and fish are considered to be “good fats” because they are unsaturated and/or contain omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are much healthier than the saturated fats common in the stereotypical American diet.
Another factor in the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet is the generous use of tomato sauce. Among other things, tomato sauce is rich in lycopene, which is thought to have an anti-cancer effect. The tomato sauce is often infused with garlic, also thought to contain chemicals that help to fight cancer and other diseases.
One nice thing about the Mediterranean diet is that many Americans typically love the food. Italian food has long been an American favorite. For example, a pizza made with whole grain flour and topped with tomato sauce, garlic, low-fat cheese and vegetables would be tasty and compatible with the Mediterranean diet. The same is true of similarly prepared pasta dishes. Chicken and seafood prepared in tomato sauces, with simmered or grilled vegetables, would be perfect. Salads topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar provide fresh vegetables in abundance.
What are the key benefits of the Mediterranean diet? First and foremost is the reduction in the risk of heart disease, and with it a reduction in strokes. The incidence of heart disease in Europeans using the
Mediterranean diet in extremely low. Second would be a reduction in the incidence of certain types of cancer. And there is definitely an effect on obesity. People who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to have fewer obesity problems.
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