You know all about its benefits, from heart health to brain health and from diabetes prevention to cancer prevention—yet you still may not have adopted the Mediterranean diet. Maybe it’s the word “diet” that’s making you reluctant…or you don’t want to give up your favorite foods…or you’re put off by the idea of a forever plan rather than a diet you go on and off. (But seriously, how successful have those ever been?)
We all want to increase our longevity …and have a fun, active lifestyle. Well, the Mediterranean diet can help with that. What’s more, it’s very forgiving—need a sweet treat or a steak every now and then? That’s OK…in moderation.
Board-certified cardiologist Dr. Michael Ozner offers this week-by-week action plan to gradually incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life. If you’re like most of his patients, you’ll feel so much better after just a short time that you’ll want to speed up the pace and go Mediterranean permanently!
Week #1. Learn about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Look up why it’s consistently first on the list of diets suggested by doctors across the country and around the world. Read about all the foods you will enjoy and what the Mediterranean diet lifestyle means. Take a look at the Mediterranean diet food pyramid to learn what you should eat most often (at the bottom) and least often (at the top).
It isn’t just about diet, though. Sharing meals with friends and family, being more active and tapping into relaxation therapies are other facets that contribute to the overall health effects.
Spend a bit more
time each day just moving, whether it is walking part of the way to work…getting in a visit to the gym…or simply doing some gardening. Also investigate relaxation techniques—if you can’t slow the pace of your daily schedule, carve out time to relax, especially after meals, for better digestion. Choose a stress-reduction technique that appeals to you, and give it a test drive—perhaps transcendental meditation, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing or deep muscle relaxation.
Week #2: Replace refined grains with whole grains. Whole, or unrefined, grains are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. They decrease risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. A whole-grain kernel consists of an outer layer, the bran (fiber)…a middle layer (complex carbohydrates and protein)…and an inner layer (vitamins, minerals and protein). The refining process destroys the outer and inner layer of the grain, removing healthful fiber and disease-fighting vitamins. Examples of whole grains: Oats, buckwheat, quinoa and barley. If you eat bread and pasta, it should be made from whole grains. Replace white rice with brown or wild rice (technically a seed, not a grain).
Week #3: Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least five to nine servings every day. They deliver an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber and complex carbohydrates that lower risk for heart disease and cancer. In particular, phytonutrients—concentrated in the skins of fruits and vegetables—are powerful plant-derived nutrients that help fight disease. Choose a range of colors to get different polyphenols and other protective nutrients. Examples: Tomatoes provide lycopene…carrots provide beta-carotene…blueberries provide anthocyanins…spinach provides lutein and zeaxanthin…and purple grapes provide resveratrol.
Week #4: Replace snacks with nuts. Almonds, walnuts and other nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids. They are good sources of protein, fiber and vitamins. While nuts have more calories per ounce than chips, they are nutrient-dense, so they are satisfying snacks. Also sprinkle nuts on salads. Just be sure to avoid nuts that have salt, honey or other additives.
Week #5: Use legumes in recipes. Legumes—beans, dried peas, lentils, chickpeas and peanuts—are rich sources of soluble and insoluble fiber, which curb appetite and reduce cholesterol. Because they’re an excellent source of protein, they can be the foundation of meatless meals such as vegetarian chili, cold lentil salad and split pea soup. A can of white beans blended with herbs and spices makes a great replacement for commercial dips.
Week #6: Eat more fish. People living around the Mediterranean region eat from the earth and the sea. Oily cold-water fish available in the US, such as salmon, mackerel, trout, tuna and sardines, are rich sources of protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids, which lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reduce risk for heart attack. Plan to eat fatty fish for two meals a week.
Week #7: Use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter or other saturated fat. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), made from the first pressing of olives, is at the heart of the Mediterranean diet. By simply switching from butter to olive oil, you can lower risk for cardiovascular events, such as heart attack. EVOO is high in monounsaturated fat, the good-for-your-heart type of fat, and it gives Mediterranean dishes their rich flavor. Be sure to get extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil. (See below for more on this.) There have been incidences in which independent lab testing found oils that were adulterated with canola oil. Best: Look for a stamp from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC.com) on any olive oil you purchase. The Council works to ensure that growers and producers adhere to very strict standards.
Week #8. Replace full-fat dairy with low- or non-fat. Yogurt is the primary dairy food on the Mediterranean diet. It makes a satisfying breakfast with fruits and nuts and can be used as a base for salad dressings and healthful desserts—drizzle yogurt with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon, a wonderful spice with anti-inflammatory properties.
Week #9: Be judicious with poultry. Limit chicken and turkey to twice a week, and to cut out saturated fat, avoid eating the skin.
Week #10: If you drink alcohol, switch from liquor and beer to red wine. Water should be your main beverage, but you can enjoy red wine as long as it is with meals. Red wine has polyphenols and resveratrol, both of which promote heart health. Recommended: No more than one four- or five-ounce glass of wine a day for women…two for men.
Week #11. Eat red meat only occasionally. By this point, you’ve made important changes, such as adding meatless meals and eating more fish, that naturally reduce the amount of red meat you’re consuming. If you’re still eating some red meat every day (that sausage at breakfast and the burger for lunch count), cut back to once a week and then to just twice a month.