Should you try the Mediterranean diet?

By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 31, 2012, at 12:15 p.m.

Since I mentioned the Mediterranean diet in my Dec. 17 column about nuts, I have gotten questions about what the diet involves.

It is generally believed that people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and suffer less from cancer and cardiovascular disease than most Americans. A recent analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of overall and cardiovascular mortality, a reduced incidence of cancer and cancer mortality, and a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. This is believed to be linked to a more active lifestyle, weight control, and a healthier diet that is lower in red meat, sugar and saturated fat and higher in fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and other healthful foods — with a little added olive oil and an occasional glass of red wine if desired.

There isn’t one specific Mediterranean diet, but more a pattern of eating depending on whether you are Italian, Greek, French, etc. There are, however, some basics that each of these eating patterns share.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes:

— Getting plenty of exercise

— Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil

— Using herbs and spices to flavor food instead of salt

— Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month

— Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts

— Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

— Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)

An additional important feature is the importance of enjoying meals with family and friends.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, pasta and rice. The people of Greece eat on average nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily and very little red meat. Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few trans fats. Bread is an important part of the diet and is usually eaten plain or dipped in olive oil instead of with butter or margarine.

Fats

The focus on fats in the Mediterranean diet is to consume healthy fats, with olive oil being the primary source, which can help reduce LDL cholesterol when used in place of saturated or trans fats. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils, which are both contributors to heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are included in the diet from fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Fish is eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet.

Wine

The health effects of alcohol have been debated for many years, and some doctors are reluctant to encourage alcohol consumption because of the health consequences of excessive drinking. Alcohol, in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some research studies.

The Mediterranean diet typically includes a moderate amount of wine — no more than five ounces of wine daily for women and no more than 10 ounces of wine daily for men.

The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. To get started, eat five to 10 servings a day of fruits and vegetables and switch to whole grain bread and cereal. Add nuts to your diet as a quick snack; good choices are almonds, cashews, walnuts or pistachios. Try olive oil instead of butter and different herbs and spices instead of salt. Eat less red meat and aim for two fish meals a week. All dairy products should be low fat. If you are so inclined, have an occasional glass of red wine, or purple grape juice as an alternative.

Roasted Eggplant and Feta Dip

Makes 12 servings, about ¼ cup each

This dip gets a kick from a fresh chile pepper and cayenne pepper. There are countless variations on this classic meze, or appetizer, in Greece. Out-of-season eggplant or eggplant that has been heavily watered often has an abundance of seeds, which make the vegetable bitter. Be sure to taste the dip before you serve it; if it’s a touch bitter, you can remedy that with a little sugar. Serve with toasted pita crisps or as a sandwich spread. To use as a topping for chicken, spoon the dip over raw chicken breasts and bake for about 30 minutes (or until thoroughly cooked) at 350 degrees. From EatingWell Magazine.

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup crumbled feta cheese, preferably Greek

½ cup finely chopped red onion

1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped

1 small chile pepper, such as jalapeno, seeded and minced (optional)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

¼ teaspoon salt

Pinch of sugar (optional)

1. Position oven rack about six inches from the heat source; preheat broiler.

2. Line a baking pan with foil. Place eggplant in the pan and poke a few holes all over it to vent steam. Broil the eggplant, turning with tongs every five minutes, until the skin is charred and a knife inserted into the dense flesh near the stem goes in easily, 14 to 18 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board until cool enough to handle.

3. Put lemon juice in a medium bowl. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and scrape the flesh into the bowl, tossing with the lemon juice to help prevent discoloring. Add oil and stir with a fork until the oil is absorbed. (It should be a little chunky.) Stir in feta, onion, bell pepper, chile pepper (if using), basil, parsley, cayenne and salt. Taste and add sugar if needed.

Make ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to two days. Nutrition information per serving: 75 calories, 6 grams fat ( 2 g sat, 4 g mono), 4 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 2g fiber, 129 milligrams sodium, 121 mg potassium.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/12/31/health/should-you-try-the-mediterranean-diet/ printed on December 20, 2014