Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on March 10, 2013
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
When I found out that small amounts of dark chocolate, coffee and red wine have health benefits, I didn’t think it could get any better. But then the news was released by nutrition experts touting the Mediterranean “diet”. Mediterranean I asked—as in Greece, Spain, Turkey and Italy? As in Italian; as in pasta and pizza? I was overjoyed! I had visions of plates piled with pasta making me healthy. I no longer had to feel guilty about feeding my kids spaghetti night after night, too tired after work to pull anything else together. It was too good to be true!
So I dove into researching the recently published and growing evidence of the benefits of following a Mediterranean-style eating plan, and learned a thing or two. The news is still good. The people living in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea tend to have lower risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and other chronic disease. For years we’ve been hearing this, but now a clinical study published this year in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can actually be prevented when subjects followed a Mediterranean style eating plan.
As I read through the studies and articles I searched and searched for my beloved pasta and pizza on the lists of foods that are consumed both in the study and in real life by Mediterranean folks. I never found spaghetti. Instead they mention over and over again fresh, wholesome fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, olive oil, nuts, whole grains and seeds.
While I was a bit disappointed, I realized that all of those healthy, common Mediterranean foods on the list are super yummy too! And after all, it makes sense pasta isn’t there because the kind many of us eat is a refined and processed food high in gluten. But I did gladly discover that whole grain pasta, in moderation and heaped with lots of veggies and a bit of olive oil, is fine to eat, just watch the serving size (which means a quarter of your plate, not the full plate piled high!).
It also makes sense that the participants in the study who did the best were required to eat at least two servings of vegetables, and three of fruit a day, fish 3 times a week, and limit consumption of red meat. They were also given small amounts of extra virgin olive oil every day and a handful of nuts and seeds.
Why is this study so significant? It was very thorough, and involved a lot of people (over 7,000) Researchers are amazed at the huge difference—risk was reduced by 30% among those who followed the recommended Mediterranean style of eating. That’s a huge amount of benefit when it comes to scientific studies. Also, as quoted in a February 25, 2013 article in the New York Times, Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association said of the study, “Really impressive. And the really important thing — the coolest thing — is that they used very meaningful endpoints. They did not just look at risk factors like cholesterol or hypertension or weight. They looked at heart attacks and strokes and death. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.”
Then I remembered, many years ago when I was in college I studied in southern Spain for a year. I think it was the healthiest year of my life! I lived with a Spanish family not far from the Mediterranean Sea. We ate a lot of fresh fruits, fish, olives, salad, beans and even sardines soaking in olive oil washed down with a glass of vino tinto. We ate fresh baked whole grain, nutty bread. We walked everywhere, miles and miles without even thinking about it. No gyms, no workout regimes, no diets, but everyone in good shape and enjoying food, even the occasional thick hot chocolate with churros. There were, I recall, a lot of very fit, healthy looking elderly folks walking the ancient streets of the Mediterranean (Spanish) town I lived in.
So the key is balance, moderation, less red meat, more fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds and yes, if you are of age and able to limit to one glass, a bit of red wine. Sounds pretty good to me! Below are some tips adapted from Sparkpeople.com to incorporate a more Mediterranean style of eating into your current meals, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!
- Top a salad with a small handful of walnuts or slivered almonds.
- Switch from beef to a fish in your tacos, and use a corn tortilla packed with romaine lettuce (or spinach), diced tomatoes and onions, and topped with mango salsa.
- Mix lentils with your favorite rice dish and top with a vegetable-tomato sauce.
- Stir-fry chicken with snow pea pods, bell pepper strips, onions, broccoli and cauliflower in olive oil. Serve over brown rice and top with walnuts and a dash of soy sauce.
- Mix up your own homemade Italian dressing using olive oil and your favorite flavored vinegar.
- Eat 3 servings of fish a week
- Try to include legumes (beans and lentils) frequently
- Eat olive oil and nuts most days
- Eat mostly white meat–fish and chicken
- Limit red meat, processed meat, sugars, candies, pastries, cookies, high fat dairy