Decoding the Mediterranean Diet

What was once a fad is now one of the most popular ways of eating to promote optimal health.
By Kimberly Rodrigues

Once thought of as close cousins with the Atkins craze and the South Beach diet, the Mediterranean diet has proven more useful, and is packed full of health benefits without depriving your body of anything.

Studies show that a diet consistent with the Mediterranean style of eating supports cardiovascular health, improves cognitive function, reduces your risk of developing heart disease and cancer, and helps prevent obesity and supports weight loss.

This way of eating is based on the following philosophy:
· Base every meal—including breakfast—on the following ingredients: fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, and whole grains. Use liberal amounts of olive oil, herbs, and spices in place of butter, sugar, and salt.
· Drink lots of water and be physically active on a daily basis, spending time with family and friends.
· Add a serving of fish, shellfish, or other seafood as a side dish at least three times per week.
· Eat poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt as small side dishes (moderate portions) on a nearly daily basis, and accent it all with a glass of wine.
· Red meat and sweets should be consumed in moderation, once or less per week.

According to the American Heart Association, this diet works to support your overall health because it minimizes saturated fat and capitalizes on the healthy monousaturated fat from olive oil. When used in moderation, monounsaturated fats help to reduce bad cholesterol and are usually high in vitamin E.
The diet is also beneficial because it uses vegetables and fruits as base components of every meal. The more raw and more color varieties you eat—especially if the foods are organic—the higher the antioxidant and nutrition levels will be, making it easier for your body to utilize the food for energy and daily functioning instead of storing it as fat.

The primary protein sources come from beans, legumes, and naturally lean meat, such as poultry and fish. When red meat is included in a meal, usually only a couple of times per month, a lean or extra-lean cut is chosen over a traditional one. This minimizes the amount of saturated fats, the kind that clogs arteries.

But why is this diet more special than the others? Experts agree that the higher consumption of fruits and vegetables (and movement away from processed foods) in addition to the presence of monounsaturated fats (olive oil) in place of saturated fats make a huge difference.
According to Johns Hopkins Health Information Network, “Fruits and vegetables are rich in free radical-fighting antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E, which can help prevent oxidative damage in the brain.
Olive oil and fish are rich in monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fat, respectively, which can quench inflammation in the brain.”

One reason why this diet may be so easy to stick with (compared to others that restrict a certain food group or type) is its view on moderation. Being able to indulge in sweets and wine without feeling restricted can promote confidence and makes sticking to this lifestyle change easier.
People who follow the average Mediterranean diet eat less saturated fat than those who eat the standard American diet. —American Heart Association

All recipes are courtesy of The Kardea Gourmetby Richard Collins, MD, and Robert Leighton.

Greek Barley Salad
4 cups cooked barley pilaf
1 teaspoon fresh grated lemon peel
½ cup fresh lemon juice
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons oregano leaves
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 pepperoncini peppers, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons capers, coarsely chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1 large red or green pepper, coarsely chopped
1 small cucumber, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Coarsely chop pepper, tomato, cucumber, parsley, pepperoncini, and olives; finely chop capers, lemon peel, onion, and garlic. Combine all other ingredients and then fold into cooled barley pilaf.

Mediterranean Tuna Salad
1 can (5 ounces) canned tuna, water packed (or water-packed sardines)
2 cups artichoke hearts, water packed
½ cup scallions, chopped
1 red or green pepper, chopped
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups leaf lettuce, chopped
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped
1 medium cucumber, chopped
1 cup chic peas
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Optional Ingredients:
1 tablespoon capers
½ cup olives

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Serve as a lunch or as a component of a first-course antipasti. Garnish with lemon wedge. This also makes for a great sandwich. It is a great way to introduce sardines into the meal rotation. They have an advantage over tuna in that they provide higher levels of Omega-3s and come from a more sustainable fish population.

Greek Tzatziki
2 containers (8 ounces) of plain, lowfat yogurt
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ lemon, juiced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
3 cloves garlic, peeled

In a food processor or blender, combine yogurt, cucumber, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, dill, and garlic. Process until well combined. Transfer to a separate dish, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour to allow the flavors to blend.

Black Bean Burgers with Kefta Spices
15 ounces cooked black beans
½ cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
1 small onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground paprika (sweet or smoked)
½ teaspoon ground pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon pure olive oil
2 egg whites
½ cup breadcrumbs, whole wheat
Salt to taste

Place onion and garlic in a food processor, and process until fine. Add ½ of the black beans and oil. Process until beans are of mashed consistency. Place in a medium mixing bowl and add remaining beans, spices, breadcrumbs, parsley, and egg whites. Mix thoroughly, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour. This allows the flavors to blend and moisture to be absorbed by the breadcrumbs. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Shape into eight small patties, packing firmly. Sauté on medium-high heat until browned on both sides. Lower heat to warm and heat through. Serve with the topping of your choice. The bean patties may be frozen in a tightly sealed bag. Browning the burger before freezing allows the beans to firm for later use on an outdoor grill.

Shrimp with Walnut Pesto and Vegetables
Walnut Pesto Sauce
4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
1 cup fresh parsley, loosely packed
1 cup walnuts
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, chopped

Heat a medium pan over low heat. Add 1/3 cup olive oil, 3 cloves chopped garlic and walnuts. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes or until garlic is soft but not browned. Set aside and allow to cool. In a food processor, combine 1/3 cup olive oil, basil, parsley, and remaining chopped garlic clove. Add cooled walnut mixture and blend until well incorporated.

Shrimp with Walnut Pesto and Vegetables
8 jumbo shrimp, deveined, tail on
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 small zucchinis, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon teaseed oil or other higher-temperature oil
½ cup white wine
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 cups cooked pasta
6 tablespoons Walnut Pesto Sauce
¼ cup fresh parsley or fresh basil, chopped
Salt to taste
Grated parmesan cheese to taste
Optional Ingredients:
1 cup cooked white beans
½ teaspoon fennel seed

Heat a large pan or wok to medium heat, add olive oil and garlic, and sauté for 2 minutes. Before the garlic browns, add zucchini, shrimp, optional ingredients, and white wine. Cover tightly and cook for 5 minutes. Add halved tomatoes and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes. Toss once or twice to ensure that all ingredients are cooked evenly. Remove from heat. Toss Walnut Pesto Sauce into cooked pasta, then add cooked vegetables. Serve hot.