The Mediterranean diet is not a get-slim-quick gimmick, and it does not mean loading up on spaghetti and Greek yogurt. Rather, it is learning to choose foods that promote a healthy heart and body. The Mediterranean-style diet is quite similar to what we already know to be a healthy way of eating. Each meal should be based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Protein should mostly come from plant sources and fish, whereas red meat is limited. Healthy fats such as olive oil should replace all other fats and oils in our diet. And nuts can be enjoyed in small portions. Continue reading to learn more about the benefits you can gain from the nourishing, balanced Mediterranean diet, and how to make it part of your healthy lifestyle. As with any lifestyle change, be sure to talk to your doctor before making changes to your eating habits.

Heart health is a phrase you will find constantly when learning about the Mediterranean diet. That’s because most foods emphasized in the Mediterranean diet contribute to healthy heart! The leading cause of death in the US is heart disease, followed closely by cancer. Among men and women, colon cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the US (the first is lung cancer). We can help reduce our risk of heart disease and many types of cancer, including colon cancer, by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Our diet is one lifestyle choice that can be the easiest to change in a positive way. Eating healthy does not need a gym membership or extra time outside of our normal routine. Education is the key to starting up the path to a healthier heart and body, so let’s get started!


Fruits and Vegetables Are Where It’s At!

What’s so great about fruits and vegetable anyway? Everything! Fruits and veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. The phytochemicals are beneficial nutrients found in plants which may protect against cancer. Lycopene, lutein and carotene are phytochemicals that may be familiar to you. Dark or bright colors are an indication of high phytochemical content; think spinach, blueberries, and tomatoes. Buy in-season fruits and vegetables for the best flavor and quality. Swiss chard, fava beans, broccoli, spinach, strawberries, and mangoes are all in-season in the spring.


Whole Grains for Digestive Health

Grains are complex carbohydrates, so they provide lasting energy to your body. The healthiest grains are whole grains. Selecting whole grain pasta, bread, cereal, and flour, as well as brown rice is one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your diet. Popcorn, wild rice, oats, bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, quinoa and wheat berries are also whole grains. When purchasing whole grain, some key words to look for are 100% “whole wheat,” “whole grain,” and “fiber.” “Multigrain” does not mean whole grain.

Whole grains contain germ and bran. Germ is rich in B vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Bran is the fibrous outer covering on grains. The fiber in bran is like a brush for your digestive system; it cleanses the body of buildup. High dietary fiber has been linked to a reduced risk of cancers of the digestive system, such as colorectal cancer. Men should aim for 38 grams fiber per day, while women need 25 grams. Those over 50 need slightly less fiber. Grams of dietary fiber are listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of the foods and ingredients you purchase.


Legumes, An Ideal Iron Source

Legumes are a family of plants including beans and lentils, as well as soybeans, peas and peanuts. Legumes are high in fiber, minerals, protein, and iron. In fact, legumes are the answer to meeting your iron requirements when choosing a low meat lifestyle, such as the Mediterranean diet. Most women need to consume 18 mg iron each day, while men only need 8 mg.

The iron in beef and lamb is easily absorbed by the body, but a serving is only 3 ounces. A 3 ounce serving of meat is about the size of the palm of a woman’s hand. This amount of beef stew meat provides 2.5 mg iron. Poultry is not a good source of iron; two chicken tenders weigh about 3 ounces and provide only 0.3 mg iron. On the other hand, 1 cup of cooked lentils will provide more than 6 mg iron. If meat is the only source of iron in a woman’s diet, she would need to eat more than 1¼ pounds of beef, every day to meet her iron needs! The high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol from this type of diet are potential risks to heart health.

Lentils are not the only iron powerhouse. Chickpeas, beans, split peas and peanuts are other legumes which are also high in iron. Don’t forget peanut butter, chickpea and lentil flour, refried beans, tofu and other soy and bean products such as “veggie burgers.” There are dozens of ways to complement each meal and snack with iron-rich legumes.


I Feel Like Fish Tonight

The main benefit of fish is their omega-3 fatty acid content. Omega-3 fatty acids carry a host of benefits that lead to reduced risk of heart disease; they may ease inflammation, decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure and reduce blood clotting. They may also enhance brain development in the fetus and improve learning ability in children. What kind of fish should you eat, and how much? Salt-water and fatty fish contain the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Eat 6 ounces of fatty fish each week to receive the most health benefits. Salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Tuna also contains omega-3 fatty acids, though in a smaller amounts.

Thought it couldn’t get better? It does! Fatty fish are also the only natural, non-fortified food source of vitamin D. Aside from the advantages of fatty fish, all fish are a wise choice of lean protein. Watch the preparation method, though. Opt for baked, broiled, grilled or steamed fish. Tilapia, snapper, cod and most other fish do not provide the heart health benefits of fatty fish, but they are still healthy when prepared properly. Enjoy fish at least twice a week as part of the Mediterranean diet.


Olive Oil, the Healthy Fat!

Olive oil is the oil you can feel good about eating! Olive oil is mainly made up of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs); they are type of fatty acids that may actually help lower your cholesterol as well as increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and decreasing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. HDL is the so called “good cholesterol,” while LDL is the “bad cholesterol.” High levels of LDL are linked to heart disease and poor cardiovascular health, while high levels of HDL may be beneficial to heart health. MUFAs may also be beneficial to people living with type 2 diabetes.

Keep in mind that olive oil, while high in MUFAs, is still a fat. Rather than adding olive oil to your diet, you should replace other oils like margarine, butter and animal fats with olive oil. For example, rather than spreading butter on your toast or roti, drizzle with olive oil. Olive oil has a delicious fruity flavor; you will find yourself wondering how you ever enjoyed foods without it! Just a little olive oil can give a big flavor impact. Still, there are some foods than should not be made with olive oil due to its low smoke point. If you have ever accidentally grabbed the wrong oil bottle when preparing to fry a dish, you will have experienced how olive oil will smoke at a much lower temperature than corn, vegetable, and canola oil. Olive oil should not be used for frying because it will smoke at around 380ºF (193ºC). When you need oil for frying, you should choose canola oil. Canola oil has higher MUFAs than corn, peanut and vegetable (soybean) oils. Also pay special attention to the fats in processed foods, such as cookies, chips and any baked or fried food that you purchase in stores or restaurants.


Go Nuts!

The Mediterranean diet has a special place reserved for nuts. Nuts provide valuable minerals (most nuts are high in manganese and copper), antioxidants, fiber and protein. Best of all, the beneficial, unsaturated fats in nuts have given them a spot in a heart healthy diet. Nuts are still high in fat, though. Rather than adding nuts to your diet, use them as an alternative to unhealthy snacks such as chips and cookies. Enjoy a small handful of nuts daily to boost your energy in a wholesome way. Here are some of our favorite nuts.

Walnuts — Walnuts are the super-nut! Just like salmon, walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Almonds — California produces 80% of the world’s supply of almonds. They can be purchased in any form you like: whole, blanched, halved, sliced, or slivered! Whole almonds are the perfect size for stuffing pitted dates. Unripe, “green” almonds are enjoyed throughout the Middle East. Check Middle Eastern and European markets for this sweet delight. Green almonds can be found starting around late April through late June.

Pistachios — Adults and kids alike enjoy cracking pistachios — no tools required except your fingers!

Cashews — Cashews are soft and easy to chew, making them a good choice for children. Cashews are popular throughout Africa and India.


How Do I Start?

Now that you know about the Mediterranean diet, how do you get started? Clip out the list of foods in this article and keep it wherever you keep your grocery list. Use a magnet to keep it on the refrigerator, stick it on the inside of a cabinet or pantry door, or tape it on the inside cover of a cookbook. You can even add the list to a note application on your tablet or smart phone. Keep an eye out for the foods on your list when you go grocery shopping. We’ve given you a head start with simple, healthy recipes made from foods in this article.


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Foods Mentioned in This Heart-Healthy Mediterranean Diet Article:

  • Dark- or bright-colored vegetables such as spinach, blueberries, and tomatoes.
  • Whole grain pasta, bread, cereal, flour, brown rice, popcorn, wild rice, oats, bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, quinoa and wheat berries.
  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, peas, peanuts, chickpeas, beans, split peas, peanut butter, chickpea and lentil flour, refried beans, tofu and other soy or bean products.
  • Salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and tuna.
  • Olive oil and canola oil.
  • Walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and other nuts