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Eating the Mediterranean way

Imagine eating delicious food that helps cut your risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke; lowers your blood pressure; makes weight maintenance easier; and adds more healthy years to your life. It may sound too good to be true, but the traditional Mediterranean diet can offer all these advantages—without restricting major food groups like carbohydrates.

The Mediterranean-style diet isn’t a short-term regimen; it’s a lifetime way of eating based on common dietary patterns among people in more than a dozen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Crete, some areas of Italy and southern France. Scientists think these eating habits account for the region’s lower death rates and fewer incidences of cancer and heart disease. The Mediterranean-style diet emphasizes:

  • an abundance of vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereals and legumes like chickpeas
  • regular use of olive oil
  • fish, poultry and eggs consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • daily, small to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt
  • small amounts of red meat a few times a month
  • moderate, if any, consumption of alcohol (usually wine with meals)

The diet’s a big switch from the protein-heavy fad diets that Americans have toyed with in recent years. Meats are limited, while carbohydrates, including bread, pasta, rice, couscous, polenta and other grains and potatoes, are enjoyed in reasonable portion sizes.

A couple of precautions if you decide to eat more Mediterranean meals: Use a light hand when dressing salads or prepping vegetables with olive oil—fat calories add up quickly. And if you don’t already drink, don’t start. A glass of purple grape juice can give you the same antioxidant benefits as a glass of red wine, says the American Heart Association.

Dueling disease

The diet is proof that taste and good health go together because you’re:

  • eating more modest portions, which helps control weight
  • eating few, if any, processed and refined foods
  • eating less saturated fat, poly-unsaturated fat and cholesterol and more monounsaturated fat, usually olive oil, which doesn’t raise cholesterol levels the way saturated fat does
  • taking in more antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits than in the average American diet
  • ditching (or greatly limiting) sweets and snack foods
  • eating more fiber, which fights obesity and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers

Tips for getting started

Getting into the Mediterranean mode requires only modest changes to your meal planning and preparation. Perk up your meals and boost your health by making these changes:

  • Substitute small amounts of fish or poultry for red meat.
  • Use olive oil as your main fat source.
  • Eat reasonable portions, since even good-for-you foods consumed in large quantities can add unwanted calories and pounds.
  • Go for whole-grain breads and cereals over refined versions.
  • Avoid refined, processed and convenience foods.
  • Fill your plate with vegetables prepared with a small amount of olive oil. Skip the butter.
  • Enjoy fresh fruit for dessert. Save cake and cookies for special occasions.