Beyond Hummus & Feta: Diversity is key in Mediterranean diet's benefits

The Mediterranean diet is hailed by medical and nutrition experts as one of the most healthful in the world. It's a cultural model credited as bestowing on the people of Greece, southern Italy and the isle of Crete some of the world's lowest rates of chronic disease.

But that doesn't necessarily make the gyros stop at the mall a health-food restaurant.

The American Heart Association reports that while the Mediterranean diet may contain as much as 25 to 35 percent fat, more than half of those fat calories come from monounsaturated fats — due largely to the extensive use of olive oil vs. butter and other fats common in the average American diet. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids that are far more beneficial for the heart than the saturated and hydrogenated fats common in Western diets. AHA also notes these other common characteristics of the Mediterranean dietary pattern:

  • Consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds is high.

  • Dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat is eaten.

  • Eggs are consumed zero to four times a week.

  • Wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts.

  • Lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and strong social support systems — many associated with shared meals — may also play a part.

Then There's the American Way

Yet many Mediterranean-food offerings you'll find in America have far higher fat content and use significantly more unhealthful fats than authentically prepared dishes. They also frequently use significant amounts of processed ingredients in place of the fresh, natural ingredients typical in the traditional Mediterranean diet. Even worse, many of the dishes Americans have adopted as their Mediterranean favorites are best considered dietary splurges. Take-out spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese in flaky phyllo dough) can contain as many as 24 grams of fat, and a gyro (pita bread sandwich stuffed with meat and yogurt sauce) can contain about two-thirds of the day's fat allowance.

Americanized Mediterranean foods often lack diversity as well, rarely stepping beyond the "big six" popular Mediterranean foods — hummus, spanakopita, tabbouleh, gyros, dolmades and falafel (and perhaps baklava and souvlaki). There's so much more.

Branch Out for an Authentic Experience

Mediterranean foods are celebrations of the season. The freshness of the ingredients is key to the vibrant colors and flavors of the cuisine. Try seeking out these elements of traditional Mediterranean fare:

  1. Fruits and vegetables, rich in phytonutrients, play a central role in the diet. Go beyond cucumbers and tomatoes and look for less common, but classic Mediterranean, produce such as Tuscan kale, mustard greens, tart purslane, spinach-like lamb's quarters and black chard.
  2. Herbs and spices of the region to explore in your home cooking and look for in restaurants include the basil and marjoram prevalent in France, oregano of Greece, mint and cilantro of the Middle East and dill and coriander of Turkey. A Mediterranean pantry also typically boasts caraway seed, celery seed, cloves, cumin, curry powder, fennel seed, ginger, marjoram, dry mustard, paprika, peppercorns, poppy seeds, crushed red pepper flakes, rosemary, sage, saffron, savory, sesame seeds and thyme.

  3. The sea plays as significant a role in the foods of the region as it does in defining the cultures. One reason red meat is traditionally eaten only in small amounts is that grazing land is sparse in many areas of the Mediterranean. Fish and shellfish, rich in heart-healthy essential fatty acids, play a greater role in the diet, especially along the many coasts.

  4. Other protein sources include the whole grains and legumes plentiful in the Mediterranean diet, such as couscous, bulgur, chick peas, kasha, millet, quinoa, basmati and brown rice, black beans, cannellini, and brown and red lentils.

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