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Health & Wellness

Thinking Beyond What's on Your Plate

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The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on plant-based foods and healthy fats, has long won praise as a healthy way to eat.

In a recent review of modern diets, the Harvard School of Public Health summed up the findings of several large studies:  “Research supports the use of the Mediterranean diet as a healthy eating pattern for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, increasing lifespan, and healthy aging. When used in conjunction with caloric restriction, the diet may also support healthy weight loss.”

In more good news, the National Institutes of Health points to research that suggests that following a Mediterranean diet may slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Unlike many other diets out there, the Mediterranean diet isn’t restrictive, with a long list of forbidden foods. Rather, it’s a wholesome style of eating that’s shared by people living in the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Italy, France, and Greece. The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which was first developed in 1993, offers an easy-to-understand overview: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, and olive oil are the foundation of daily meals. Fish and seafood, the guidelines suggest, should be eaten at least twice a week, while poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt can be enjoyed in moderate portions. Sweets and red meat should be considered an occasional treat, enjoyed, perhaps, once a week.

A Mediterranean approach to eating goes beyond what’s on your plate, points out Amy Riolo, a food historian and author of The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd Edition: A Flavorful, Heart-Healthy Approach to Cooking. “The Mediterranean ‘diet’ is more than the foods you consume,” she says. “It’s also a way of life. The people in this part of the world live in a way that optimizes health. To achieve the same level of wellness, you can’t just eat the foods of the region. You should also commit to its food philosophy and make lifestyle changes that feed your body, mind, and soul.”

These lifestyle elements include daily physical activity and enjoying meals with other people. “Knowing that you’re going to be sitting down to a meal with others reduces stress hormones before you even put anything into your mouth,” Riolo says. She recommends that we have eating partners or buddies in the same way we have tennis partners or people who are part of our carpool. “Your eating partner doesn’t have to be a spouse,” she says. “You can create communal meals around an office building or neighborhood potlucks.” If you live far from friends or family, consider sharing a meal remotely with a video chat on your phone or computer.

Eating like a Mediterranean also means thinking of food as an ally, rather than as something problematic. “Throughout the region,” Riolo says, “food is viewed as nourishment and as medicine, as a form of artistic expression and an expression of culture and history.” For Riolo, cooking is a big part of the pleasure of food. “I look at cooking as a canvas, an act of creativity, like painting or sculpture.”

Simple Mediterranean recipes can be prepared in little time and by even the most novice cook. Riolo recommends this easy salsa for a summer picnic:

 

Peach, Black Bean, and Citrus Salsa

Gluten-Free, Vegan

Serves: 10 | Serving Size: approximately 2/3 cup | Prep Time: 10 minutes, plus time to chill
 Cook Time: none

This extremely chunky salsa could also be considered a finely chopped salad. It makes a stunning accompaniment to grilled fish and chicken, and since this recipe can be made ahead of time, it’s a great choice for entertaining.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • 2 peaches, chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, then let chill in the refrigerator for several hours to allow the flavors to blend.

Photo credit: Amy Riolo

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