What a great time of year to think about a delicious and fun way of eating that can have extraordinary health benefits! I'm talking about Mediterranean Cuisine and Lifestyle - tasty and very flexible. We will explore some easy steps that will lead you towards Mediterranean eating - a plant-rich way of eating, with less focus on meats and sweets. Practice each idea for a week before moving on.
Step 1: Switch your protein/entrée.
Think seafood for healthy omega-3 fatty acids, or plant proteins for eliminating saturated fat and cholesterol with a healthy bonus of fiber! Fish, shellfish, legumes (dried beans/peas) and tofu come to mind as likely meal change-ups, along with leaner poultry without the skin. Try canned seafood for an easy entree (tuna, salmon, clams, oysters). Add seafood to salad as is, or mixed with a little lemon juice, olive oil, and chopped veggies. Make patties from tuna or salmon and bake or brown in olive oil. Strive to have fish at least 3 times per week, including fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel! Limit red meat to 4- 6 ounces per week - 3 ounces is about the size of the palm of a woman's hand. Stay away from processed and fried meats. Processed meats include hot dogs, deli meats, ham, corned beef and bacon. Meatless Monday is a way that many people make a habit to include healthier protein choices.
Step 2: Opt for Bread Spreads Instead!
In the Mediterranean regions, you may find small bowls filled with bean puree' (fava or hummus!), other veggie spreads made with eggplant (baba ghanoush!), cucumbers and yogurt (tzatziki!), or tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers with olive oil and parsley (ezme!). These nutrient-filled spreads reduce saturated fat intake, and also contribute fiber, nicely replacing the tub of butter or margarine on American tables. Other spreads make use of cheese, strained yogurt (labneh) and nuts and seeds, such as sesame seed paste (tahini!), peanut and almond butters. Try a spread along with some whole grain pita triangles and fruit for a healthy snack!
Step 3: Include fats, but make them healthy!
Use oils, especially extra virgin olive oil. Canola oil and peanut oil are also good choices, as they are also good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Use them in place of lard, butter, margarine, and tropical oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil. When sautéing, try olive oil instead of butter. Use oil to dress egg, potato, tuna or pasta salad in place of mayonnaise. Olive oil even works on a hot baked potato with a little vinegar or salsa. Dip bread into olive oil mixed with chopped herbs and garlic, instead of using butter. Olive oil can be substituted for butter or margarine in some baked goods - reduce the amount by 20%. Healthy fats help to satisfy hunger, as well as reducing cardiovascular and Alzheimer risks. Extra virgin olive oil is the best choice for dressings and drizzling, but pure olive oil is a less expensive alternative for cooking purposes.
Step 4: Fill half your plate with vegetables.
Aim for 3 cups per day - include some dark green veggies for their special cancer fighting health benefits - spinach, kale, broccoli, mustard/turnip greens, and others. Dips or sandwich spreads made from hummus, or any pureed bean can be seasoned to taste and kept for snacks and meals. Add extra veggies and beans to casseroles, soups and stews. Try roasting a pan of mixed veggies, tossed with herbs and olive oil for an easy prep. Make a "chopped salad bowl" with sections of colorful chopped veggies - no lettuce necessary.
Step 5: Eat 3 cups fruit a day.
Choose from any fresh fruit, or fruit frozen without sugar. If using canned fruit, choose fruit canned in juice or water to reduce added sugars. Enjoy whole fruit instead of juice, to enhance fiber intake and reduce calories. Add fruit to cereals, smoothies, salads and layered with yogurt and nuts.
Step 6: Eat nuts and seeds for snacks.
Choose from a variety of unsalted or lightly salted nuts - stay away from candied and honey roasted nuts due to the sugary coating. Eat about 3 ounces per week (check nutrition facts label for serving size). Though they have differing nutrient profiles, all seeds and nuts offer healthy oils and are rich in nutrients. Stay within your calorie budget by replacing less nutritious items in your pantry (such as refined flour products) with nuts. For example, try a wedge of low-fat cheese and a handful of almonds instead of crackers or pretzels.
Step 7: Choose whole grains.
Use oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, popcorn. Look for grain products with the word "whole" in front of the grain, listed as the first ingredient, such as whole grain corn or whole wheat. All oats and oatmeal in the U.S. are whole grain, but the less processed types, such as old fashioned rolled oats or Irish oats are better sources of intact fiber and will have a more modulated effect on the post-meal rise in blood sugar.
Step 8: Consider the sweets.
Choose beverages without added sugar; drink water or fruit-infused water, unsweetened tea or coffee or sparkling water. Watch for added sugar in yogurt, canned fruits, some dried fruits, and in breakfast pastries and cereals. Naturally sweet foods, such as fruits, help replace sweetness. Use fruits to advantage in sweetening smoothies, oatmeal, dry cereal and muffins.
Eating the Mediterranean way doesn't require special recipes or exotic foods - just simple changes to your meals and snacks. All the dietary staples are available locally in your area. Neither does it require special seasonings - you can experiment, using popular flavor blends from Latin, Greek, Italian or Asian cuisine. Remember the flavors of our unique American cities as well - San Antonio, Boston, San Francisco and New Orleans to name a few. Check out Penn State Extension's Mediterranean Cuisine Comes to You class series. Learn about local products; sample "tastings" of olive oil, greens, cheese and grains; help prepare and sample recipes from the Mediterranean! Look at our website for a class near you. (new classes appear as registration opens). Also watch our website for our new online Mediterranean Cuisine course!