11 easy ways to fit the healthy Mediterranean diet in to your busy life
Almost every Saturday at noon, Dave Tive and Amy Putnam can be found feasting on tabbooli and grape leaves salad, fatoosh, Baba Ghannouji, lentil soup, chicken sumac, gyros, falafel balls, and other Mediterranean delights in a bright, airy, New York City-style deli in Susquehanna Township.
“We make a conscious effort to eat healthy,” said Putnam, an area attorney. It shows.
Their body weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure readings are all at heart-healthy lows. No need for starvation diets, Lipitor or beta blockers here.
They prove the slogan sounded often by Shehab Saba, owner of Shab’s Pita Stroller: “Shab’s each day keeps the doctor away.”
Although Tive and Putnam have eaten this all-natural, nutrient-rich, high-fiber, low-fat diet at least once a week for more than a decade, others – from school cafeteria workers to big-city chefs to football fans – are just now going Mediterranean.
With no added sugar or salt, little red meat, an array of fruits and vegetables, and oils high in mono and polyunsaturated fat – the good fats – the Mediterranean diet is “delicious and nutritious,” Saba said. “It’s like taking a vitamin pill.”
Now, science provides the empirical evidence that Saba has seen since his childhood days on an olive tree farm in his native country of Lebanon: the Mediterranean diet prevents cardiovascular disease and cancer, and reduces the risk of dying from heart attack and stroke.
After a breakthrough Spanish study was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine last month, the diet has exploded as today’s “it” diet, with doctors calling this a “watershed moment in the field of nutrition.”
The study randomly assigned more than 7,000 people between the ages of 55 to 80 at high risk of cardiovascular disease. Some ate a low-fat diet. Others ate one of two variations of the Mediterranean diet. One diet featured more than a quarter cup a day of extra-virgin olive oil, and the other included more than an ounce a day of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. No limits were set on calories and no exercise was required.
The diet dramatically reduced the subjects’ risk of heart attack and stroke and reduced their chances of dying. Why? The prevailing wisdom is that it lowers bad cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing the protective qualities of good cholesterol. It may also help the body to process sugar.
So how do we Americans adapt the Mediterranean diet to our rush-rush lifestyles and tight-tight budgets?
The following 11 tips are offered by registered dietitians Amanda Dolan, senior health education consultant, Capital BlueCross; Deb Gochenour, PinnacleHealth System; and Theresa Gogets, Good Samaritan Health System:
1. When eating out, be choosy
Eat out somewhere wallet-friendly and with a salad bar or with Mediterranean on the menu, and then take a large portion to go. Supermarkets like Giant Food Stores and Wegman’s have a kiosk of grape leaves, cold beans, and more. Gyros and kabobs are now even available frozen.
2. Buy in bulk
While olive oil is admittedly more expensive than regular oil, buy large bottles, Saba suggests. Or you can buy a 90/10 canola and olive oil blend, which still packs the antioxidant punch. Also, you don’t need to buy the “extra virgin olive oil” which tends to be lighter in taste but pricier, Gogets said. To save money, you could use the extra virgin for non-cooked meals and the cheaper oils for sauteed and hot cooked meals. Grocery store brands are fine. Use olive oil whenever you would use butter or mayonnaise, Gochenour said.
3. Eat fresh
You will automatically save money because you are not buying sticker-shock cuts of filet mignon and sirloin steak. You are also not paying for expensive packaging and preservatives. Better yet, said Gochenour, you are not paying for blood pressure and cholesterol medications, so don’t sweat some of the price tags on fresh fruits and vegetables. Ground turkey is a good and often cheaper alternative for ground beef, Dolan said. And many Med-meals are vegetarian, so opt for “Meatless Mondays” or “Tofu Tuesdays.”
4. Grow your own
The Mediterranean diet is rich in tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, green peppers and eggplant. Dolan said gardening takes time at first, but you save so much in long run. You can get tomatoes for pennies. Or shop at local farmers’ markets, Gochenour suggested. One of Saba’s favorite recipes: “Take everything in your garden and put it on your plate.”
Remember that you don’t need to buy the Cadillac of all fruits and vegetables – organic – to get the health benefits.
5. Spice it up
Stock up on spices, such as garlic, allspice, basil, oregano, parsley, cilantro, and mint – virtually anything except salt. Spices can last for years and retain their flavor. Shop when they are on sale, and then stock up, Gochenour said. Look for coupons. Because dried spices are more potent than fresh, you can use less, Dolan said, which is “very budget-friendly.” And spices are so much cheaper than butter. Spices “give [vegetables] flavor without the fat,” Gogets said.
6. Plan ahead
Plan ahead for what you need for the week. You don’t have to zigzag into a series of specialty shops to get what you need, as you did years ago, when you had to go to the bakery for pita bread, for example. More grocery stores are adopting an international flavor in their food bars and aisles.
7. Slow cookin’
You can join “Club Med” in a crockpot. Slow cook meats, vegetables and even fruits, said Dolan. When you come home from work or school, dinner is aromatic and ready. “You don’t have to worry about taking an hour to make a gourmet meal,” she said.
8. Frozen and canned are fine
Buy frozen or canned fruits and vegetables if you can’t afford the time and money to keep buying fresh. Fresh is best, frozen is better, and canned is good, if you watch the salt content, Gogets said. You may lose some vitamins and fiber in the processing of canned vegetables, so aim for frozen, at least, she said. And even pitas, chicken kabobs, and gyros can be bought frozen for a quick meal.
Frozen fish is ok, too. Just opt for “wild caught” not “farm raised,” Dolan said. Salmon cooks in 15 minutes – it is fast and easy and rich in heart-healthy omega-3 antioxidants.
9. Pluck up deals on chicken and dairy products
It’s cheaper to buy chicken with the skin on, so just discard the skin before cooking, Gogets said.
And if recipes call for dairy products, try fat-free or low-fat. While feta cheese may be expensive, buy in bulk if you use it often. And use sparingly.
10. Roast veggies for the week
When you have time, roast a giant batch of vegetables one night for 15-20 minutes and then eat them all week. They are even good cold, said Gochenour. Roasted vegetables over pasta are terrific, and great eaten cold, because the olive-oil based sauce over pasta doesn’t spike blood sugars as much.
11. Easy sweets
Even desserts can be fast and easy. No mixing and baking required. Try fruit for dessert, or sunflower seeds, walnuts, nougat, baklava, or hazelnut cookies. Buy fruit in season. Freeze it in the summer and eat in the winter, Gochenour recommends. Keep grapes on the counter for kids to snack on, Dolan said.
Written by Diane White McNaughton
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