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Secrets of Mediterranean Food

Secrets of Mediterranean Food

Dan Fields is sharing Health Secrets of the Mediterranean Diet with us. It’s not just the olive oil that makes this eating plan so good for you. Scientists have known for decades that people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet have lower rates of heart disease, and more-recent research has shown that such a diet can help protect against everything from cancer, diabetes, and obesity to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Olive oil may be the best-known Mediterranean ingredient, but the diet also emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and fish.

Although almonds are high in fat, it’s mostly the healthier, monounsaturated kind. Several studies show that eating almonds or other nuts can lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and almonds may also help protect against diabetes by reducing spikes in blood sugar if eaten after a high-carbohydrate meal. In addition, almonds are rich in vitamin E and good sources of fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B-2.

Greek yogurt with almonds and honey is a delicious snack or easy-to-prepare breakfast. Add sliced, toasted almonds to salads, rice and vegetable dishes, and baked goods. Almond butter, found in natural food stores and some supermarkets, has a healthier fatty-acid profile than peanut butter.

Native to the Americas, this luscious fruit reached the Mediterranean by way of the Spanish conquistadors. Like almonds, avocados are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and they also contain beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that helps lower cholesterol levels. Avocados are good sources of potassium, folic acid, and vitamins B-6, C, and K. Plus, research shows that adding avocado to salads or salsas increases your absorption of beta-carotene, lycopene, and other carotenoid compounds in those foods.

Besides salads and salsas, avocado goes great in sandwiches, either sliced into wedges or mashed and spread instead of mayonnaise. Some commercial guacamoles don’t actually contain much avocado, so make your own or shop for one that lists avocado as the first ingredient.

Also called garbanzo beans, chickpeas have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region and Middle East for thousands of years. Like other legumes, chickpeas are rich in fiber, protein, and folic acid. A 2006 study found that including chickpeas in your diet lowers both total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Try chickpeas baked with crushed tomatoes and oregano. Enjoy them in soups (such as minestrone) or add to green salads. Make hummus, the Middle Eastern appetizer, from pureed chickpeas and sesame tahini, and flavor with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and cumin. When using canned chickpeas, rinse first to cut your sodium intake.

While primarily identified with North African cuisine, this grain product is also popular in Sicily, France, and Spain. It’s typically made of crushed durum wheat semolina (not the ground type of durum wheat that’s used for pasta). Whole wheat couscous has even more fiber than the regular variety. Couscous is loaded with selenium (which may help protect against osteoarthritis and prostate cancer) and also provides some protein.

Serve couscous instead of rice with vegetables, legumes, fish, or meat.  The lovely purple skin of this nightshade vegetable contains nasunin, a flavonoid compound that may help protect brain cells from free-radical damage. Other phytonutrients in eggplant help reduce cholesterol levels and keep blood vessels healthy.

Try baked or roasted eggplant stuffed with wild rice, or make eggplant parmesan. To prepare caponata, a Sicilian relish served as an appetizer, sauté chopped eggplant in olive oil with onions and garlic, and combine with tomato sauce and roasted bell peppers. To reduce the amount of oil that eggplant absorbs, salt the chopped eggplant and let it "sweat" for 30 to 60 minutes, then rinse and dry before cooking.

A key ingredient in many Greek, Italian, and Spanish dishes, this heart-healthy oil is mostly monounsaturated fat, which lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol without affecting HDL ("good") cholesterol. Recent research in Spain indicates that antioxidant polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil may protect against some forms of breast cancer.

Make extra-virgin olive oil your principal cooking fat. Although they can be expensive, extra-virgin varieties come from the first gentle pressing of the olives, so they’re more flavorful and richest in antioxidants. Olive oil is also delicious tossed with pasta, sprinkled over salads, or as a dip for bread.

Seafood is popular all along the Mediterranean coastline, and the humble sardine is an excellent choice because it's high in omega-3 fatty acids (which boost heart and brain health) and low in mercury and other contaminants. Fresh sardines taste better than canned and are becoming increasingly available in the United States. However, canned varieties contain more calcium: The canning process softens the fish's tiny, calcium-rich bones, making them edible.

Brush fresh sardines with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and then grill and serve with lemon. For a tasty sandwich spread, mash canned sardines with Dijon mustard, minced onions, and lemon juice.

Spinach is an excellent source of iron. This leafy green vegetable is also rich in folate (folic acid), which helps protect against heart disease, certain cancers, and cognitive impairment in the elderly. Spinach is good for your eyes: It's loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoid compounds known to reduce the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. And it's high in calcium and vitamin K, both of which are important for bone health.

Dress fresh spinach with lemon juice and olive oil and enjoy as a salad. Sauté spinach in olive oil, garlic, and red pepper. Add layers of steamed spinach to lasagna. Or try a Greek spinach and feta pie (spanikopita).

Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background by Vincent Van Gogh (Painted at the Mas de la Dame, Provence in June 1889)Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background by Vincent Van Gogh (Painted at the Mas de la Dame, Provence in June 1889)Tomatoes It’s hard to imagine Southern Italian cuisine without tomatoes. They may be especially healthy for men: A large 2002 study found that eating tomato sauce at least twice a week can lower prostate cancer risk by 33 percent. (More recently, a 2007 study found no such benefit, but some experts have questioned the design of this research.) Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a cartenoid that helps protect against the malignancy. Both the lycopene and vitamin C in tomatoes may slow aging of the arteries.

Fresh tomatoes taste great sliced on sandwiches and diced in salads. Purée tomatoes to make a quick soup or pasta sauce. Lycopene is more readily available from cooked tomatoes and needs some fat to be absorbed, so a smart choice for men is tomato sauce made with olive oil.

Dan Fields is a freelance writer and editor in Framingham, Massachusetts. He is the former editor of Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self Healing newsletter. Source:

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