Everyone is always looking for new ways to eat healthier, and if you blink, you’re likely to miss the newest fad diet that just popped up on Pinterest. The good news: sometimes, it’s the old ways of doing things that are the best way to go. In terms of a regime that’s smart for your heart, a Mediterranean diet heavy on legumes, whole grains, fish and, of course, lots of luscious olive oil gives you plenty of healthy fats, fiber and may also help you keep your weight at an optimal level. People have been eating like this for centuries and for good reason.
Why is it called a Mediterranean Diet?
Named for the eating habits of countries and cultures surrounding the sea of the same name (Greece, Italy, Spain, Israel and Egypt to name a few), it refers to maintaining a diet heavy on veggies, beans, cholesterol-free fats like olive oil and grapeseed oil, seeds, nuts and fish. Think of the food you’d order at a typical Greek restaurant and you get the idea. Stuffed grape leaves, hummus, mashed up fava beans (also called “foul”), kebabs lighter on the meat and heavier on the veggies, rice, and hearty stews have plenty of flavor and are super good for you too.
The Science Behind the Mediterranean Diet
It’s unlikely that there’s a diet on earth more scrutinized than this one. Just this year, a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology stated that people with a history of cardiovascular disease had a 37 percent lower death risk compared to people who didn’t observe this healthier plan. A 2014 Harvard study showed that adherence to the Mediterranean diet led to a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease amongst a group of firefighters. This same group also saw decreases in high blood sugars, weight gain and LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol.
Baby Steps to a Healthy Lifestyle
The reality is, if you’re an avowed sugary soda drinker who picks up most of your meals from a drive-thru window, revolutionizing your diet isn’t going to happen overnight. There are some easy steps you can take that will increase your longevity and lead you down the path to an improved lifestyle. Use healthy oils (olive oil, grape seed oil, coconut oil) in place of vegetable shortening, margarine and butter as much as possible. These fats decrease your cholesterol intake and increase Omega 3 fatty acids that are great for your heart.
Switch out beef for fish and skinless chicken when possible (beef is typically high in fat and artery-hardening cholesterol). Also: if it’s white, just say no. Eat brown breads, whole grains, brown rice and quinoa or whole grain pastas and avoid any processed sugar. Whole grains have more protein and fiber than their bleached white counterparts and are more flavorful. Snack on healthy nuts like almonds, pistachios and walnuts instead of chips, crackers and cheese. (Measure your nut portions because they are full of oil and, therefore, calories.) Speaking of portions, cut down on those, too. Consider getting a take out or leftover container and scooping half your dinner into it before you dig in at the restaurant. Those ancient Greeks probably didn’t supersize anything.
Ditch the Car Keys and Embrace Your Sneakers
Most lifestyles in European and Middle-Eastern cultures involve a lot of walking and biking. Look at your weekly list of errands and figure out which ones you can do on foot. You’ll get exercise and check off something from your to-do list at the same time. Find walk-friendly areas in your town where you have to park and walk for a few blocks before and after lunch or dinner. Explore exercise classes near where you work until you find something you like and try to hit one up at least once a week.
Only Buy Clean Foods from the Grocery Store
There’s no shame in being new to clean eating; we all have to start somewhere. Remember to shop the periphery of the grocery store and avoid the temptation of the internal aisles, especially those with the frozen and processed foods. Spend an hour or so online looking up healthy, veggie-centric recipes before you shop and start your grocery trip in the fruit and veggie section. Pick up your low-fat fish, chicken and turkey proteins next and avoid baked goods, chips, salt and fat heavy food mixes in favor of uncooked bags of brown rice, dried or canned beans and those healthy oils. Stick to your list and exit the store quickly before you hear the siren call of your favorite cookies.
Living and eating well doesn’t mean depriving yourself of the good stuff. It may mean shifting your definition of “good stuff” and embracing an entirely new lifestyle that, really, isn’t all that new at all.