May is International Mediterranean Diet Month, the perfect opportunity to learn more about this way of eating. The Mediterranean diet is lauded by nutritionists, doctors and dietitians as one of the healthiest ways of eating on the planet. It focuses on plant-based proteins and heart-healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, fish and olives. In fact, it was once considered a peasant’s diet, containing what people could grow in their gardens.
The culinary influences were derived from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Although people in those countries had been eating this way for centuries, researchers recently discovered that people who consumed this type of food may have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even Alzheimer’s disease. And as the diet features anti-inflammatory omega-3s, there’s also evidence that the diet may help ease arthritis pain.
Although many people follow the Mediterranean diet as a weight loss method, others view it as a healthy lifestyle, or simply enjoying the bountiful and flavorful foods at its foundation.
As the Mediterranean diet focuses heavily on plant foods, most vegetables are allowed, as are fruits such as dates, figs, avocados, cherries, apples, oranges, melons and peaches.
Olives and olive oil, healthy fats that have long been recognized for heart-healthy properties, are a big part of the diet, as are legumes, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas. Minimally processed whole grains like barley, farro, oats, millet, rice and couscous are also a mainstay. The diet also includes nuts and seeds: cashews, almonds, pine nuts, pistachios and sesame seeds to name a few.
Most fish are included in the Mediterranean diet, including salmon, tuna and mackerel, particularly for their high omega-3 levels. Dairy and eggs are allowed, too, but in moderation. Such flavorful spices as saffron, paprika, za’atar and coriander are staples in many recipes.
Traditional Mediterranean dishes include eggplant, lentils and peppers cooked in olive oil, a Turkish recipe; briam, a Greek dish featuring baked vegetables in olive oil; tabouli, a Lebanese bulgur and parsley salad made with fresh tomatoes and lemon; spiced Moroccan meatballs mixed with cilantro, cumin, chili powder and paprika; and zarzuela de pescado – a Spanish-influenced Mediterranean seafood stew featuring fish, mussels, shrimp, almonds, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and piquant seasonings.