Mediterranean diet is healthful - and delicious

New York TimesMarch 5, 2013 

  • What’s in the diet?

    Extra virgin olive oil: At least 4 tablespoons a day.

    Nuts: Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts; about an ounce of the mix a day.

    Fruits: At least three servings a day.

    Vegetables: At least two servings a day.

    Fish: At least three times a week.

    Legumes: Includes beans, peas and lentils; at least three times a week.

    Wine: At least seven glasses a week with meals, if accustomed to drinking.

    Meat: White meat instead of red.

    New York Times

The “How do I eat?” thing has become increasingly combative and confusing. Do you give up carbs, or fat, or both? Do you go vegan or paleo?

No. You eat like a Greek, or like a Greek used to eat: a piece of fish with a lentil salad, some greens with olive oil and a glass of wine. It’s not onerous. In fact, it’s delicious.

The value of this kind of diet has once again been confirmed in a study involving thousands of participants and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The diet that seems so valuable is our old friend the “Mediterranean” diet. It’s as straightforward as it is un-American: low in red meat, low in sugar and hyperprocessed carbs. High in just about everything else – healthful fat (especially olive oil), vegetables, fruits, legumes and what the people who designed the diet determined to be beneficial, or at least less-harmful, animal products, in this case fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.

“We have so many types of evidence that this kind of eating works, but the weight of evidence is important, and this adds a big stone to that weight,” said Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has studied the Mediterranean diet for years.

As encouraging as the study is, it’s far from perfect, and it would be hyperbolic to say that it represents The Answer.

For one thing, the control group was supposedly on a low-fat diet, but didn’t necessarily stick to it; in the end, it wasn’t a low-fat diet at all. And the study did not show reversal of heart disease, as was widely reported; as far as I can tell, it basically showed a decrease in the rate of some cardiovascular diseases in people at risk, when compared with those at risk who ate typically lousy diets.

“It’s clearly better than a horrible diet, which is what most people eat,” said Dr. Dean Ornish, who has devised a low-fat diet that has been demonstrated to reverse heart disease. “The most responsible conclusion from this study would be, ‘We found a significant reduction in stroke in those consuming a Mediterranean diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, when compared to those who were not making significant changes in their diet.’”

Exactly. And that’s good news, because it might encourage some of the majority of people who are not making significant changes in their diet. Most Americans eat so badly that even a modest change in the direction of this diet is likely to be of benefit. That was the revelation of the Mediterranean style of eating when it came to public notice a generation ago. (Next year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”)

You could say that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing that was recognized as food by your great-grandmother. Whole, minimally processed foods of almost any type can be included in a sound diet. Period.

This probably means you should think about salads or rice and beans for lunch, because you’re not going to have many better options unless you’re at home. It probably means that breakfast should be oatmeal or fruit salad – or eggs, which were unrestricted in this study – because you’re probably not going to whip up a Japanese breakfast. Snacks should be nuts or fruit or more vegetables or beans.

And it probably means you should take control over dinner. So you’re looking at a vegetable dish or two, some legumes and a piece of fish, all cooked in or dressed with olive oil, and maybe a little bit of bread (preferably whole grain).

For dessert, fruit, or at least a dessert based on fruit or nuts or both. (The researchers had their subjects steer clear of what they called “industrial desserts,” and one might just as well take that a step further and say “steer clear of industrial food.”) Good chocolate, by the way, appears to be just fine. As does wine: The study’s participants were allowed seven glasses a week.

Think about a frittata, a pasta dish with more vegetables, simply prepared fish and a reliance on legumes. The reasonable diet can include rib-eye, too, and even bad cheeseburgers, but the message is that those are not staples but treats.

Should you eat beans two times a week or two times a day? Should you drink wine even if you don’t like it? Feh. I would just envision a typical mezze plate and you’ll probably see what foods should dominate the assortment that makes up your daily diet: very little meat and dairy; a great deal of legumes and vegetables; perhaps a bit of fish; bread, and not much else.

Healthful food is delicious food, traditional food, real food. There is nothing new here. Eat real food, watch it on the animal products and – even if you’re a few pounds overweight – you’ll improve the chances of your living a healthy life into what might actually be your golden years. And they’ll be delicious.

For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:

More-Vegetable-than-Egg Frittata

Four-Spice Salmon

More-Vegetable-Than-Egg Frittata 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/2 onion, sliced (optional) Salt and black pepper 4 to 6 cups of any chopped or sliced raw or barely cooked vegetables 1/4 cup fresh basil or parsley leaves, or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or mint leaves, or any other herb 2 or 3 eggs 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional).

PUT olive oil in a skillet (preferably nonstick or well-seasoned cast iron) and turn heat to medium. When fat is hot, add onion, if using, and cook, sprinkling with salt and pepper, until it is soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add vegetables, raise heat and cook, stirring occasionally until they soften, from a couple of minutes for greens to 15 minutes for sliced potatoes. Adjust heat so vegetables brown a little without scorching. (With precooked vegetables, just add them to onions and stir before proceeding.)

WHEN vegetables are nearly done, turn heat to low and add herb. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender.

MEANWHILE, beat eggs with some salt and pepper, along with cheese if you are using it. Pour over vegetables, distributing them evenly. Cook, undisturbed, until eggs are barely set, 10 minutes or so; run pan under broiler for a minute or two if top does not set. Cut frittata into wedges and serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Yield:

2 or 4 servings

Four-Spice Salmon 4 6-ounce skinned salmon fillets Salt and black pepper 1 tablespoon coriander seeds or ground coriander 1/4 teaspoon whole or ground cloves 1 1 / 2teaspoons cumin seed or ground cumin 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 2 tablespoons peanut oil, grape seed or other neutral oil, or clarified butter

SEASON fillets on both sides with salt and pepper. If necessary, combine spices and grind them to a coarse powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Press some of the mixture onto the top of each fillet.

HEAT a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the oil or butter and, when it shimmers, place the fillets, coated side down, in the pan. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the spice mixture forms a nicely browned crust.

TURN the fillets and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the salmon just slightly resists when pierced with a thin-bladed knife. Yield:

4 servings

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