The Mediterranean diet is special because it is not only about eating healthy foods, it is also about a special lifestyle the people of this unique geographic area lead. This article will only concentrate on the Mediterranean diet foods. The foods are colorful and aromatic, rich in beneficial nutrients and a pleasure to eat. As a special bonus, a pyramid of Mediterranean diet foods is also included.
At the first glance, the macronutrient composition of the Mediterranean diet is very similar to the macronutrient daily recommendations by North American health organizations, including the American Heart Association. The diet consists of roughly 55-60% of carbohydrates, 10-15% proteins and 25-30% of fats.
The main difference between Western and the Mediterranean diet lies in the types of foods within the macronutrients groups we consume.
Although the specific foods may vary from region to region in the Mediterranean, the common factor is that all of the foods of this these regions are wholesome and fresh, and no processed foods are eaten.
As well, one of the the key differences between North American and the Mediterranean diets is the types of fats that are consumed.
Before jumping into the detailed description of the three different groups of foods, the inhabitants of this region consume, let me introduce the food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet.
Foods of the Mediterranean Diet – Pyramid
The food pyramid was adapted from OLDWAYS
As you can see, the foods they consume are mainly of fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, whole grains, fish, olive oil, small amounts of dairy, and small amount of red wine at each meal. Notice that at the beginning of the pyramid a section is devoted to physical activity and their lifestyle as an integral part of the “diet”.
Great care and joy to create, share and enjoy these delicious foods is a vital part of their daily ritual. (Fast foods for them are simply not an option.) They take a great deal of pleasure in having their meals and this too is a very important part of the lifestyle.
An inclusion of a glass of wine with their dinner is common. Plain water throughout the day is the norm to quench their thirst..
Mediterranean Diet Foods – Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates come from fresh and organically grown fruits, veggies, whole grains and nuts. Most of the carbohydrates they eat are rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other chemicals essential for their good health. Both fruits and vegetables are used seasonally when they are the freshest and the tastiest.
Their diet does not include white sugar.
Colorful vegetables constitute a large part of their daily eating ritual. Because the area basks in much sunshine, a number of vegetables have a distinctively sweet taste. This is a result of being sun-ripened and picked fresh in their prime. Purchasing artificially ripened, tasteless fruits and vegetables common in most cities of North America, is not an option.
Veggies, are used in most of their delectable dishes on daily basis. Here is a list of some of the common vegetables of the Mediterranean cuisine.
Garlic – it is a ubiquitous vegetable (seriously, it is a vegetable) and it is included in many dishes. It is considered very healthy and is believed to reduce blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
Tomatoes – they are central part of the Mediterranean cuisine. If you have ever grown tomatoes you know that the hot house tomatoes available in our stores are a far cry from the succulent freshly grown tomatoes. They use the plum tomatoes for their sauces because they are very fleshy. The large round tomatoes (beafsteak ones or a similar variety) are typically tossed in the salads.
Eggplant – it is hard to imagine a Mediterranean diet without this vegetable. Yet, eggplant is not a native to the region. Ages ago it came from the East and it took the people a long time to acquire a taste for it.
Zucchini – mainly only a smaller zucchini is used because it tastes sweeter. The larger ones are usually bitter and need to be salted before use. The yellow-orange flower is fried in olive oil and apparently it tastes delicious.
Salad Greens – Salads includes variety of greens. Some are slightly bitter other are sweet. A few examples are arugula, curly endive, radicchio, dandelion leaves, purslane, endives.
Potatoes – widely eaten and often find their place in stews. Crete island is known for their potatoes and much of their crop is exported.
Legumes – include a variety of beans (mostly dried), peas and lentils are an important part of their cuisine because they are a good source of protein and are very rich in fiber. Legumes common to the traditional Mediterranean diet include cannellini beans, chickpeas, fava beans, green beans, kidney beans, lentils and split peas.
Peppers, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, cabbages, carrots, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, turnips, small pumpkins, mushrooms are just a few more examples of veggies common in their cooking.
Fresh fruit of some sort is always available. It is consumed in large quantity, especially on the island of Crete upon which the Mediterranean diet, as we know it, is based. As a matter of fact, Cretans eat about 6 times more of these Nature’s gifts than inhabitants of other Mediterranean regions (Ref).
Oranges – in Crete this is the main fruit in the winter. Oranges or orange juice are always present on their tables and they play one of the primary roles in their nutrition. All the trees are naturally grown without any chemical interference.
Grapes – this is the main summer fruit of Crete. Grapes are considered ideal for a balanced diet. They have a very distinctive aroma and taste.
The Mediterraneans consume other fruits as well, depending on the region. Some of the common ones include: apples, apricots, quince (a relative of apple and pear), avocados, cherries, dates (often added to cooked and baked to add sweetness instead of sugar), figs (bright green ones are delicious when baked), pomegranates, melons, peaches, pears, other citrus fruits, strawberries.
Many of the fruits are dried and when they are not available fresh they are either eaten in the dried form or added to many of their savory dishes.
Much of their grain eat is whole. The varieties that grow and are consumed in the Mediterranean include barley, buckwheat, bulgur, farro, millet and oats, polenta, rice ( which is an excellent source of carbohydrates, protein and vitamin B). They use the grain to make:
Polenta – a cormeal that is boiled into a porridge. Although it tastes good on its own, it is often served with meals instead of potatoes or rice.(Ref)
Wheat berries – they are the whole grain form of wheat. Wheat berries are not processed in any way. They can be served with meat or replace rice in other dishes. They are very high in fiber.(Ref)
Bread – unlike North American bread all their bread is made from whole grains. Many of their breads come in a flat, unleavened variety similar, to one you may know as pita bread. These breads must be made fresh as they become stale quite quickly. As well, they make bread that needs rising. The flavors of the breads vary from village to village as the villages may use different unrefined flours and distinct spices.
No dinner table is complete without a basket of bread.
Pastas – it is made from durum wheat flour. Durum wheat is a protein-rich variety of wheat. This variety is used to make all pasta. They usually have pasta in small quantities not like here in America. Usually people eat about 1/2 cup of pasta to accompany the other parts of their meal.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and Seeds – are an excellent source of healthy fats, protein and fiber. Commonly and depending on the region , almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts and sesame seeds are used in the Mediterranean cuisine.
Mediterranean Diet Foods – Protein
The protein comes mainly from grains, legumes (described above) and from fish, shellfish, dairy and a little from meats.
Because many of the Mediterranean regions, including Crete, experience conditions that are not suitable for cattle farming, the production of cheese utilizes goat or sheep milk.
Cheese and yogurt are an essential source of protein and it is a vital part of the Mediterranean diet. In Crete cheese is the central part of the diet and it is consumed in large quantities.
Because of the high consumption of cheese which is a source of saturated fats, one would assume that it would contribute to high levels of cholesterol in the blood. It is not the case in the Cretan population.
This interesting observation is attributed to the fact that the animals are free to graze and their diet is not supplemented. Grass feeding is a source of “good fat”, including omega-3 (Ref), so it is possible that the saturated fats are offset by these good fats.
Fish and Shellfish
Fish is an important source of protein and it is often the central part of a meal. It complements well the protein they get from grains and vegetables.
Popular oily fish, for example sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel, are loaded with healthy essential fatty acids, which help protect the Mediterranean population against heart disease and promote good health in general. Shellfish also offers similar benefits.
In addition other commonly eaten fish include sardines, mackerel, tuna, salmon, cod, anchovies, moray, monkfish, flounder and swordfish . The shellfish includes, oysters, scallops, squid, muscles, octopus, shrimp and crabs.
Fish and shellfish is typically not battered and deep fried.
Meat and Poultry
Sheep and goats are the main livestock and they are important for their milk and meat. The milk is primarily turned into cheese and yogurt. Pigs are also raised in some regions and their meat is cured into salamis and hams but they are only eaten in small quantities. In general, Mediterraneans prefer to consume lean meats which are low in saturated fats
The inhabitants of the Mediterranean are enthusiastic hunters. A variety of birds often end up in their cooking. The birds are highly valued for their distinctive flavor and lean meat.
Chickens are typically free-range and corn-fed giving them a slightly yellow hue.
Meat is not eaten very frequently. Their protein, apart from legumes, nuts and seeds comes primarily from fish, poultry and dairy.
They do not eat eggs in a way we do and often they don’t have any as a meal (for example, breakfast as we do). The eggs are used in baking and that is where they get the nutrients from them. In addition to eggs from chickens, they also like duck and quail eggs.
Mediterranean Diet Foods – Fats
“Heart healthy” fats and oils are one of the main distinction between Western and the Mediterranean diet. The fat of the Mediterranean diet comes from fatty foods including olive oil, fish and nuts but not butter or animals. In contrast, in our culture the primary source of fat comes from various vegetable oils, butter and animal fat.
Mediterranean fats and oils are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids as well as the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. It is quite likely that these oils are one of the key reasons for the good health of the Mediterranean people.
There is a significant difference in the fatty acid composition between the oils we consume and the olive oil of the Mediterranean diet. You may want to read an article about those important differences in oils.
For years, the Mediterranean way of eating has been recognized as having many health benefits, including weight loss. The Mediterranean diet foods are fresh, wholesome, organic and unprocessed, high in fiber and naturally occurring antioxidants. The cuisine includes healthy oils and fats that are primarily monounsaturated and rich in omega-3 essential acids.
The Mediterranean way of eating has been studied extensively and the conclusions are always the same. There is a direct correlation between the Mediterranean diet foods and positive health benefits, including the prevention of many diseases that afflict North Americans.
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