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Many people have asked me “What is a Mediterranean Diet?” After all, the title of my first cookbook is Backyard Kitchen: Mediterranean Salads.

I like to think of it as a diet rich in the fruits and vegetables that grow in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. It is said that it is the healthiest diet in the world. The diet leans heavily on non-dairy, calcium rich foods, such as beans and fish, and olive oil.

This diet saves and extends lives by improving heart health, fighting other chronic conditions and bolstering brain power. The heart health is the result of monounsaturated fatty acids, which play a leading role in the Mediterranean diet. The use of extra virgin olive oil decreases bad cholesterol and increases the good cholesterol (HDL), keeping your blood vessels open and flowing.

Using olive oil is believed to quell inflammation and insulin resistance, which is the source of diseases such as breast cancer and diabetes. This diet is shown to decrease the risk of breast cancer by 57% and diabetes by 30%. Decreasing inflammation also decreases pain and helps the brain. It slows down cognitive decline and boosts brain function.

We have researched and come up with 10 attributes that help define the Mediterranean Diet and are found in those countries that dot the Mediterranean Sea.

Fish is eaten more readily because it is easily available. Red meat is consumed just a few times a month, resulting in a more balanced fat ratio. The combination also lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Mackerel, sea bass, and other fishes are tossed with olive oil, lemon and spices and even tossed in pasta dishes. Household staples: canned tuna and salmon

Olive oil is the prime fat, leaving butter and vegetable oil in the wind. It has heart healthy unsaturated fats. Household staples: olives and extra virgin olive oil

Quality Dairy Products such as yogurt are integrated into many meals. Good cheeses may be incorporated into cooking, although not the main component. Household staple: Greek yogurt, artisanal cheeses

Legumes such as lentils and chickpeas are used often because they are affordable sources of protein. They are also high in fiber and antioxidants. Legumes are also very versatile and diverse. Add them to whole grain dishes, rice and pastas; or mash and blend them to make delicious dips.

Red Wine, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Shiraz, which is slowly sipped. A glass a day lowers risk of heart disease.

Vegetables – No Mediterranean meal is complete without vegetables. They are folded into pasta, stews, and sauces. Veggies have disease fighting compounds. 

Household staples: tomatoes (canned or fresh, paste and sun dried), onions, garlic, fresh lemon, and a range of herbs and spices

Whole Grains are a leading ingredient in this diet. They stretch seasonal vegetables, cheeses and fish into a cohesive meal. Think of grain salads, such as tabbouleh, which is made with bulghur wheat and herbs. 

Household staple: pasta, bulghur, farro, whole grain crackers

Fruits are not just an add on, or snack in the Mediterranean diet, they are added to cooking. Fruits are eaten fresh, dried, baked and grilled. Those who eat at least five ounces of fruit a day, as in the Mediterranean diet, are 15 percent less likely to have macular degeneration.

Household Staple: dried fruit such as apricots, figs, raisins, prunes and cherries.

Nuts & Seeds are consumed in different forms, not just as a snack. They are crushed into breadcrumbs, mixed into grains and blended into bread. Eating six servings of nuts a week decreases the risk of heart disease by 25% and cancer risk by 19%.

Household staple: raw or roasted walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, sesame seeds and tahini paste.

Eating with Friends is a lifestyle among Mediterranean people. Meals are eaten slowly, with friends and family. No TV, no phone, no iPad. Having a pleasant eating experience makes for a healthier life. People who don’t watch TV while eating are 37% less likely to be severely overweight.

Source: Cooking Light, November 2017.