Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, a dietitian at The Miriam Hospital, recommends looking to the Mediterranean for healthy eating. When we picture the Mediterranean, we might see ourselves floating in jewel-blue water, we might feel the sun warming our skin, and we might taste pasta in our mouths. But eating healthy? When we think of Italy, whose chefs and grandmothers popularized the exhortation “mangia, mangia!” (eat, eat!), and Greece, the land of feta cheese and baklava, we might not think of the healthiest of lifestyles.
Research has shown, however, that people who live near the Mediterranean have lower instances of heart disease and some cancers, including breast cancer, than their American counterparts. What do our Mediterranean brothers and sisters know that we don't?
Cooking with Oil
Olive oil, Flynn points out, might be the key. At this point, you may be shaking your head, recalling whichever "diet du jour" warned against any type of fat or oil. But olive oil is not the enemy. Olive oil contains good fat—yes, there is such a thing as good fat. It contains mainly monounsaturated fat, that will not oxidize or break down like the fats found in vegetable oils. Oxidation, which occurs when consuming oils like soybean, safflower, corn or flax, contributes to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
In addition to olive oil's non-oxidizing properties, extra virgin olive oil contains compounds called phytonutrients. These phytonutrients may be responsible for the fact that, when compared to other oils, olive oil has been shown to decrease blood pressure, blood clotting and inflammation.
Still not convinced? Olive oil makes insulin work better, which helps decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. “It also contains squalene, which has been shown in animals to inhibit tumors and may be why people who use olive oil have a lower risk of some cancers,” Flynn reports.
Fats taste good and help keep you from getting hungry between meals so trying to avoid them altogether is only likely to make you binge later. Whenever possible, make like the Mediterraneans and cook with olive oil to feel satisfied and reap its benefits.
The prevalence of olive oil isn't the only aspect of Mediterranean cooking that differs from how we cook in the United States. Fruits, vegetables and grains are the focus of a meal instead of meat or poultry. Red meat, in fact, is rarely consumed. Nuts and a moderate amount of daily red wine are important parts of the diet. Followers of the Mediterranean diet consume fish only in small amounts.
La Bella Vita—The Beautiful Life
After enjoying a Mediterranean meal, why not enjoy another Mediterranean tradition? The Italian tradition of the passagiatta, the evening stroll, has been a part of the culture since the Renaissance. Even if your busy schedule only allows time for a short walk, you can reap its calorie-burning and mental health benefits. In the fast-paced American life, we walk, we run, we hurry from place to place. When was the last time you even used the word "stroll?" Sure, you might be strolling along a residential street or a city sidewalk rather than the canals of Venice, but the effects will be the same. A satisfying meal, a glass of wine and a leisurely stroll? Thanks to Mediterranean tradition, healthy living never looked so good.
Read more about Mary Meals, fare inspired by the work of Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, research dietician at The Miriam Hospital.