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12 ESSENTIAL FOODS TO MASTER THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET

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Research suggests that people living in countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea live longer and are diagnosed with cancer and heart disease less than other regions. It’s no wonder that their diet was named the top weight loss. Although the Mediterranean diet can vary depending on which Mediterranean country you’re talking about (there are 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea), the staple foods are similar. They include fish, fruit, vegetables, grains, herbs, and spices with small amounts of red meat and dairy.

Lots of exercise is encouraged as is enjoying meals with family and friends. Toby Amidor, dietitian and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen and other health books, shares 12 foods that are central to this healthy lifestyle and the benefits of each.

1. Olive Oil

This oil is well known for providing a healthy dose of heart healthy monounsaturated fat. Replacing saturated and trans fat with unsaturated fat like olive oilwhats your olive oil can help lower your risk of heart disease. Research has shown that monounsaturated fats may lower total cholesterol and your “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Although olive oil is certainly a healthy choice, it does come with a hefty calorie tag at 120 calories per one tablespoon. When you do use it in dressings, marinades, and cooking, aim for one tablespoon per person.

2. Salmon

This heart healthy fish is brimming with omega-3 fats. These polyunsaturated fats are important for brain function and heart health as they help lower total cholesterol and triglycerides. Research has also suggested that there may be a connection between mental health and omega-3 consumption.

study published nearly 20 years ago in The Lancet found that the prevalence of major depression was lower in countries where fish consumption was higher. In addition, a more recent meta-analysis of over 150,000 participants looked at the relationship between fish consumption and depression. Researchers found that those who regularly consumed high levels of fish were nearly 20 percent less likely to have depression compared to folks who did not consume much fish

3. Almonds

One ounce of almonds (23 nuts) has 13 grams of healthy unsaturated fat, one gram of saturated fat, and six grams of protein. These nuts are an excellent source of vitamin E, magnesium, and manganese, and a good source of fiber, copper, phosphorus, and riboflavin.

Although the calorie count of almonds is listed as 160 per ounce, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that it just has 129 calories, 20 percent less than previously thought.

4. Dates

This sweet fruit is native to the Middle East, where many countries border the Mediterranean Sea. Up to 70 percent of the dry weight of the fruit is sugar, however dates also come with numerous nutrients and health benefits.

One pitted medjool date contains 66 calories, 18 grams of carbs, 16 grams of sugar, and small amounts of over 16 nutrients including B vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, calcium, and manganese. They also provide powerful antioxidants including polyphenols, anthocyanins, and carotenoids.

study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry looked at the effects of eating dates on blood sugar and triglycerides (or blood fats) in healthy people, and found that fruit did not worsen either. Researchers in the study concluded that dates can help prevent heart disease, specifically the hardening of the arteries. In addition, dates may also help with bowel health and decrease the risk of colorectal cancer as concluded by a 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science

5. Red Wine

Numerous studies have linked the polyphenol antioxidants resveratrol found in red wine to heart benefits, specifically helping protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. However, that doesn’t mean you can freely down bottles of the red stuff. The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans recommend that if you do choose to drink, then do so in moderation—defined as a maximum of two drinks per day for men. One drink of wine is defined as five fluid ounces.

6. Hummus

This blend of chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans) is served up regularly in the Mediterranean diet. Besides chickpeas, basic hummus recipes include tahini (sesame seed paste), olive oil, garlic, and spices. Variations of hummus are made using flavors like fresh parsley, lemon juice, or sriracha.

Two tablespoons of store-bought plain hummus provides about 70 calories, five grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, and two grams of protein. Although the ingredients are certainly healthy, portion control should stay in check—keep it at between two tablespoons and 1/4 cup (or four tablespoons) per serving. Hummus can be served as a dip for fresh vegetables or used as a condiment for sandwiches.

7. Greek Yogurt

This thick, creamy yogurt has double the protein and 40 percent less sugar and sodium compared to traditional yogurt. Although Greek yogurt isn’t necessarily from Greece, thick yogurts can be found in many countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Greek yogurt also contains live, active cultures which can help with gut health. It also can potentially be tolerated by folks diagnosed with lactose intolerance. Greek yogurt contains four grams of lactose per 1/2 cup which is one-third the amount of lactose found in one cup of milk.

8. Tomatoes

This fruit is part of a Mediterranean diet and appears in recipes from breakfast through dinner—and it’s no wonder based on their delicious taste and nutrition profile. One medium-sized tomato provides 25 calories and is an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamins A and C and a good source of potassium, folate, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Processed tomatoes, like in canned products, are also part of many Mediterranean recipes and do contain a phytonutrient called lycopene.

This powerful antioxidant is more prevalent in cooked tomatoes compared to fresh, and has been linking to helping reduce heart disease and cancer risks. A well-balanced Mediterranean diet should include both fresh and canned tomatoes.

9. Beans

Black, white, red, or any variety in between, beans are a powerhouse of nutrients. Beans provide complex carbs, which your brain uses for energy. One half-cup of canned or home-cooked black beans provides approximately 110 calories and 7.5 grams of protein. If sodium is something you’re worried about with the canned variety, low sodium and no added sodium varieties are available. Research also shows that rinsing canned beans can decrease their sodium content by up to 40 percent.

10. Garlic

This aromatic vegetable adds a ton of flavor for few calories to many Mediterranean dishes, while also providing a variety of nutrients. One clove of garlic has fewer than five calories and contains small amounts of B-vitamins and calcium. Garlic also contains a phytonutrient called allicin, which has antibacterial properties.

When selecting fresh garlic, choose heads of garlic that are firm. To get the best quality out of your fresh garlic, store it in a cool, dark place for up to three months. Once the bulb has been broken up into cloves, use it within 10 days.

11. Chicken

Boneless, skinless chicken breast is certainly a lean choice and is used is a variety of Mediterranean recipes. However, don’t count out the dark meat. The difference in calories between a skinless, boneless chicken breast and skinless chicken thighs are not many and the dark meat imparts a deeper flavor to dishes. Opt for three- to four-ounce portions, and remove the skin before eating as that is where most of the artery-clogging saturated fat is found.

12. Whole-Wheat Couscous

Not technically a grain, couscous is a combo of semolina wheat and water that is more like pasta. There are several types of couscous including the large “Israeli” couscous (also called pearled couscous) and the very small “Moroccan” couscous (about three times the size of cornmeal). One cup of cooked, whole-wheat Moroccan couscous provides about 150 calories, 30 grams of carbs, one gram of fat, six grams of fiber, and six grams of protein. The fiber is higher in the whole-wheat variety, which should be eaten in moderation—about 3/4 to one cup per person. Couscous has a mild flavor which makes it versatile—it can be enjoyed in both savory and sweet Mediterranean dishes

BY , MS, RD