When you think about Mediterranean food, your mind probably goes to pizza
and pasta from Italy, or hummus and pita from Greece, but these dishes don’t
exactly fit into any healthy dietary plans advertised as “Mediterranean.” The
reality is that a true Mediterranean diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables,
seafood, olive oil, hearty grains, and more—foods that help fight against heart
disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline. It’s a diet worth chasing;
making the switch from pepperoni and cheese to fish and avocados may take
some effort, but you could soon be on a path to a healthier and longer life.
Pizza, gyros, falafel, lasagna, rack of lamb, and long loaves of white bread: all
these foods have become synonymous with what we call “Mediterranean.” We
picture huge, three-hour feasts with multiple courses and endless bottles of wine.
But over the past 50 years, Americans and others have altered the idea of
Mediterranean fare, ramping up the meat, saturated fat, and calories at the
expense of the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive
oil, small amounts of dairy, and a glass or two of red wine. What was once a
healthy and inexpensive way of eating back then is now associated with heavy,
unhealthy dishes that contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other
After World War II, a study led by Ancel Keys of the Mayo Foundation
examined the diets and health of almost 13,000 middle-aged men in the US,
Japan, Italy, Greece (including Crete), the Netherlands, Finland, and Yugoslavia.
Remarkably, well-fed American men had higher rates of heart disease than
those in countries whose diets had been restricted by the deprivations of war. It
was the men of Crete, arguably the poorer people of the study, who enjoyed the
best cardiovascular health. This was due to physical labor and their unique food
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is based on the dietary traditions of Crete,
Greece, and southern Italy circa 1960 at a time when the rates of chronic
disease among populations there were among the lowest in the world, and adult
life expectancy was among the highest, even though medial services were
Aside from eating a diet consisting mainly of fresh and homegrown foods
instead of processed goods, other vital elements to the Mediterranean diet are
daily exercise, sharing meals with others, and fostering a deep appreciation for
the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.
Following a Mediterranean diet has many benefits, but there are still a lot of
misconceptions on exactly how to take advantage of the lifestyle to lead a
healthier, longer life. The following are some myths and facts about the
Myth 1: It costs a lot to eat this way.
Fact: If you're creating meals out of beans or lentils as your main source of
protein, and sticking with mostly plants and whole grains, then
theMediterranean diet is less expensive than serving dishes of meat, cheese, and
Myth 2: If one glass of wine is good for your heart, than three glasses is three
times as healthy.
Fact: Moderate amounts of red wine (one drink a day for women; two for men)
certainly has unique health benefits for your heart, but drinking too much has
the opposite effect. Anything more than two glasses of wine can actually be bad
for your heart.
Myth 3: Eating large bowls of pasta and bread is the Mediterranean way.
Fact: Typically, Mediterraneans don't eat a heaping plate of pasta the way
Americans do. Instead, pasta is usually a side dish with about a 1/2-cup to 1-
cup serving size. The rest of their plate consists of salads, vegetables, a small
portion of meat, and perhaps one slice of bread.
Myth 4: If you follow the traditional Mediterranean diet then you will lose
Fact: Those living on Greek islands don’t enjoy good cardiovascular health just
by eating differently; they walk up and down steep hills to tend to their garden
and animals, often living off what they can grow themselves. Physical labor plays
a large role.
Myth 5: The Mediterranean diet is only about the food.
Fact: The food is a huge part of the diet, yes, but don't overlook the other ways
the Mediterraneans life their lives. When they sit down for a meal, they don't sit
in front of a television or eat in a rush; they sit down for a relaxed, leisurely meal
with others, which may be just as important for your health as what's on your plate.
A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of large quantities of fresh fruits
and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil—coupled with physical activity—reduces
the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
diseases. More specifically:
Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fibre, slowing
down digestion and preventing huge swings in blood sugar.
Preventing heart disease and strokes. Refined breads, processed foods, and red
meat are discouraged in a Mediterranean diet, and it encourages drinking red
wine instead of hard liquor, which have all been linked to heart disease and
Keeping you agile. The nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce
a senior’s risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about
Reducing risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers speculate that the Mediterranean diet
may improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and overall blood vessel health
—all factors that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Halving the risk of Parkinson’s disease. In a diet containing high levels of
antioxidants that prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called
oxidative stress, the risk of Parkinson’s disease is practically cut in half.
Increased longevity. When there is a reduction in developing heart disease or
cancer, as in the case when you follow a Mediterranean diet, there is a 20%
reduced risk of death at any age.
How to make the change
If you’re feeling daunted by the thought of changing your eating habits to a
Mediterranean diet, here are some suggestions to get you started:
Eat lots of vegetables. Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive
oil and crumbled feta cheese, or load your pizza with peppers and mushrooms
instead of sausage and pepperoni. Salads, soups, and crudité platters are also
great ways to load up on vegetables.
Change the way you think about meat. If you eat meat, have smaller amounts
and leaner cuts. Put small strips of chicken on your salad, or add diced
prosciutto to a whole-wheat pasta dish.
Always eat breakfast. Fruits, whole grains, and other fibre-rich foods are a great
way to start your day, keeping you pleasantly full for hours.
Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines are
rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams have
similar benefits for brain and heart health.
Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. If it’s helpful, you can jump on the
“Meatless Mondays” trend of foregoing meat on the first day of the week, or
simply pick a day where you build meals around beans, whole grains, and
vegetables. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week. Be sure not to
load up on cheese, though.
Use good fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados
are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals. Some vegetable oils higher
in polyunsaturated fats—like sunflower, safflower, soybean, and corn oil—are
more heart-healthy than the mostly monounsaturated fats in olive oil.
Enjoy some dairy products. Try small amounts of cheese, and eat Greek or plain
yogurt. You want to make sure to choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream or cake, opt for strawberries,
fresh figs, grapes, or apples.
Quick start to a Mediterranean diet
There is new, even stronger research backing up the Mediterranean diet as a
way to prevent vascular disease. The diet includes generous quantities of olive
oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish; limited portions of red meats or processed
meats; and moderate amounts of cheese and wine. So how can you make the
switch? Start with small steps, jump-starting your effort with these top five tips:
Sauté food in olive oil, not butter.
Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack, or adding them to
Choose whole grains instead of refined breads and pastas.
Substitute fish for red meat at least twice per week.
Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole milk.
Instead of this:
Try this Mediterranean option:
Chips, pretzels, crackers and ranch dip
Carrots, celery, broccoli and salsa
White rice with stir-fried meat
Quinoa with stir-fried vegetables
Sandwiches with white bread or rolls
Sandwich fillings in whole-wheat tortillas
Pudding made with skim or 1% milk
Also, consider adding sliced avocado to your sandwich instead of cheese, or
forgoing the tomato sauce on your pizza. You can opt for egg whites or tofu
rather than eggs, snack on olives or nuts instead of cookies, and have a glass of
red wine instead of a mug of beer.
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