The Mediterranean Diet: Food for Better Health

Good chance you are working on healthier eating habits for yourself and family.  Great news. Never before has there been as much excitement and devotion to thinking about food and cooking as there is now. Cookbooks, websites, restaurants and specialty food markets tease our palates and answer the quest for healthy and novel foods. However, finding the right approach to eating can mean sifting through a multitude of facts and theories promoting diets, supplements, ingredients and sometimes misinformation. What truly is a healthy diet?

One of the most healthy and easy to adopt is the Mediterranean Diet. Just the idea of the Mediterranean pleases us with visions of warm, sunny skies, deep blue seas and charming villages lined with fishing boats. If you are a lucky visitor to a Mediterranean country, you might find yourself relaxing at a small table, shaded by a bright umbrella, and sipping a glass of local red wine. Placed in front of you is a plate of simply prepared, freshly caught fish and greens lightly dressed with olive oil pressed from the gnarled old olive trees on the nearby hillside.  Add a crusty loaf of bread. You have a meal from heaven. This is my happy place.

So what is this diet? Think fresh, simple, colorful, packed with nutrition and best of all, easy to prepare. Key components include generous helpings of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil, small portions of nuts, whole grains, more fish and less red meat, and limited high fat dairy products.  A highlight of the Mediterranean diet is the richness of omega-3 fatty acids found in olive oil and fish that reduce inflammation in blood vessels and reduce cardiovascular disease risk. You might have to say “no” to sweets, but a little red wine is okay.

As a dietitian and one who loves to cook, I find the Mediterranean Diet packs great nutrition into culinary adventure and better health which makes this diet approach worth the change in eating habits. Because it is fresh and lower in calories, rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, it leads to weight loss, lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and improves gut health. Years ago researchers found people living on the Greek island of Crete lived into their 100’s mostly disease free. Diet, blessed by the land and sea, along with physical activity seemed to be the key.

While there may not be a sea nearby, we are a country rich in healthy ingredients found in supermarkets, farmer’s markets and our own gardens. I you are rethinking your menu, a first step might be salads and soups because they embrace a variety of fresh ingredients and are frequently low in calories, but rich in vitamins and minerals. Use beans and lentils to provide protein and fiber. Consider making your own bread with whole wheat or rye flour spiked with ancient grains and seeds. Juices and smoothies fit perfectly into the Mediterranean Diet. Nuts are the perfect snack food for active kids. For dessert if you must, find recipes that include fruit as a large part of the ingredient list. A “trip” to the Mediterranean might be as close as the supermarket and your kitchen.

Cooking Tip: Tender Baked Fish
Parchment paper is a staple in a well equipped kitchen.  The French call using parchment cooking “en papillote” or “in paper”. It makes preparing fish ever so simple.  Position the fish fillet lengthwise in the center of a generous piece of parchment.  Season your fish with a light or flavored olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper plus any other seasonings like dill or a gentle squeeze of lemon.   Loosely wrap the fish by folding and crimping the long side of the paper above the fish to create a “tent” without touching the fish.  Fold and crimp the ends tightly to seal the package.  Place wrapped fish on a baking sheet with sides or a shallow pan.  Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes.  Baking time depends on fish thickness.   The fish gently steams in the paper staying moist and tender.  Parchment can tolerate high heat, but keep it off the grill.

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, MA, RDN, CDCES, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.