What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet has been in the news a lot in the past few years. It has been voted the #1 diet by U.S. News & World Report. Not only was it voted the top overall diet, it was also rated the best healthy eating diet, the easiest diet to follow, the best diet for diabetes, the best heart-healthy diet, and the best plant-based diet. I would also add that, in my humble opinion, it is the best tasting diet out there. But what is the Mediterranean Diet?
I always have a good laugh when I hear someone say that the Mediterranean Diet is a fad since it is one of the oldest diets in the world. It has been around since the beginning of recorded history. Jesus and Muhammad ate the Mediterranean Diet. Michelangelo, Cleopatra, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, Julia Child and Napoleon all ate Mediterranean.
Health Benefits of Eating Mediterranean
There are thousands of studies on the Mediterranean diet showing benefits for everything from arthritis to dementia, alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and longevity. Doctors and dietitians are telling their patients to eat the Mediterranean Diet, but there seems to be some misconceptions and lack of education about what the diet really is.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet is the food and recipes eaten by those who live in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This includes gastronomic delights from Southern Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Albania, Monaco, Croatia, Bosnia and Malta), the Middle East (Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Palestine), and Northern Africa (Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria). The heart of the Mediterranean Diet (where the healthiest people live) is often considered to be Spain, Italy and Greece and the islands of the Mediterranean (including Crete, Sardinia and Ikaria). Even though the recipes vary widely from country to country, the base ingredients are the same.
The Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet
Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil
There is a saying on the Greek island of Crete, home of some of the healthiest people in the world, “We have olive oil in our veins.” This isn’t at all an exaggeration. The traditional Mediterranean Diet is a high fat diet (and yet they have the lowest heart disease rates in the world). Up to 40% of daily calories come from fat, 30% of daily calories is from extra virgin olive oil.
As you may have heard, 75% of the olive oil sold in the United States is fraudulent in one way or another. Using the highest quality, freshest extra virgin olive oil is super important for your health for the following two reasons:
- Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives. This means that the oil is still full of sediment. It is unfiltered, thick and colorful. The sediment is full of antioxidants, which are lost to a great extent once the oil is filtered.
- A really fresh extra virgin olive oil will cause a peppery burn in the throat about 10 seconds after being swallowed. This component of the oil that causes the burn mimics the chemical that is in ibuprofen. It is a very strong anti-inflammatory with only healthy side effects that was used in ancient Greece to cure headaches and toothaches.
If you look at the diets of the healthiest people around the world, one of the common denominators are bitter greens. Bitter greens are like a natural vitamin supplement full of vitamins and minerals including Vitamins A, C, and K. Some greens are loaded with healthy Omega-3 fats. The bitter flavor stimulates digestion and helps to detoxify the body. One word of caution: If you add sweetness (such as honey) to reduce the bitterness, you also reduce the digestive benefit, which actually starts with the bitter flavor receptors on the tongue. If you think you don’t like bitter greens I recommend trying a Cretan recipe such as Horta with Potatoes and I think you will change your mind.
Organic Vegetables and Fruits
The average American eats 2 1/2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The average Cretan eats 9 to 12 servings a day! Most meals are vegetable based meals. Stews may contain a small amount of meat along with plenty of veggies and olive oil. This will usually be accompanied by a salad and possibly a few vegetable side dishes. As with the bitter greens, if you don’t think you like vegetables I would highly recommend trying some of the traditional Mediterranean recipes on our site. The nutritional value of fruits and veggies are always best from local, organic farms and picked at maximum ripeness.
Beans, nuts, and seeds
The main protein eaten in the U.S. is meat, while the main sources of protein in the Mediterranean are beans, nuts, and seeds. Beans, nuts, and seeds are eaten almost every day.
Grass Fed/Free Roaming Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy
Everywhere you look in rural Mediterranean areas, you will see animals roaming the countryside, eating herbs and berries from trees. Grass fed animals are leaner and healthier, and because they are eating herbs instead of grains their meat has high levels of omega-3 fats. These essential fats, which are deficient in the diets of most Americans, help with everything from bone health to depression.
Wine and Moonshine
I am a bit of lightweight when it comes to drinking. When I am on the Greek island of Crete and drinking the average amount of wine and moonshine I feel as if I am in a constant, mellow state of buzz. Everyone drinks wine on a daily basis on the island (yes, even kids). It is customary to have a glass or two of homemade wine at lunch and at dinner. Some even have a glass at breakfast! To top it all off, a moonshine called raki (made from distilling the seeds and skins of grapes after making wine) is often served at the end of the meal. A small amount of alcohol with your meal has been shown to have beneficial effects on your heart and can increase your HDL (“H” for healthy) cholesterol. Of course, if you don’t drink alcohol or have an issue with it, I don’t recommend starting. You can also increase your HDL with exercise.
Fish and Seafood from the Sea or Ocean