Healthy eating tips based on a Mediterranean diet

mediterranean dietContact Susan Nitzke, 608-262-1692, nitzke@nutrisci.wisc.edu

Headlines tout the value of a Mediterranean-style diet as more and more studies verify the health benefits of traditional Mediterranean ways of eating. These eating patterns have been shown to promote heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

But it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what aspects of Mediterranean dietary patterns are beneficial because studies have not consistently defined the Mediterranean diet–or the Western-style eating habits used for comparisons.

“Many media reports state that the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be superior to low-fat diets or low-carb diets, but the specific benefits of traditional Mediterranean eating patterns are still open to interpretation,” says Susan Nitzke, UW-Extension nutrition specialist and Professor Emerita in nutritional sciences at the UW-Madison.

Nitzke points out that the type of fat, the amount of dietary fiber, and the absence of highly processed foods are potentially important features of traditional Mediterranean eating patterns. For example, Mediterranean diets are plentiful in olives, fish and nuts. These foods are high in monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, often referred to as “healthy fats.” Nitzke also points out that the absence of sugary beverages and the use of herbs for flavoring rather than salt and sugar may be important features of traditional Mediterranean eating patterns.

“It’s easy to say that certain foods such as toaster pastries and potato chips do not fit traditional Mediterranean diet patterns, but it’s not as easy to classify many other foods such as poultry, eggs, lamb, peanuts, white bread and pasta,” says Nitzke. She points out that studies have been inconsistent in including foods such as canola oil, yogurt, and tofu that are generally considered healthy but are not native to Mediterranean regions.

According to Nitzke, there is no single eating pattern that represents all the traditional diets of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, but there are some common features of eating patterns with proven health benefits. She recommends the following guidelines:

–Use minimally processed grains. Brown rice, barley, oats, and other whole grains may not be native to most Mediterranean regions, but these and fiber-rich whole wheat are generally recommended.

–Make vegetables and fruits a prominent feature in every meal. Filling half your plate with vegetables and fruits is a great way to plan healthy meals and snacks.

–Vary your protein sources. Fish and seafood are healthy sources of protein in the Mediterranean Diet, along with nuts and seeds. For beef and other meats that can be high in solid fats (saturated fats that tend to be solid at room temperature), choose low-fat versions and keep the portion sizes small or moderate.

–Shun sugary beverages and desserts. Sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, and other beverages that contain high amounts of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup may be okay as occasional treats, but low-fat milk, water and real fruit juice are healthier choices on a daily basis. Similarly, a bowl of fruit is recommended in place of cakes, pastries and other desserts high in added sugars.

–If you choose to include alcohol in your Mediterranean-style diet, moderation is key. Studies show that moderate amounts of red wine are typical to traditional Mediterranean dietary patterns. Research also shows that the same principle of moderation probably applies to beer and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, alcoholic drinks are not recommended for everyone.

For more on healthy eating patterns such as the Mediterranean-style diet, contact your local UW-Extension office (contact information available at http://yourcountyextensionoffice.org) or visit reliable online sources of nutrition information such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DietaryGuidelines.htm), MyPlate food guidance system (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/), and eXtension (http://www.extension.org/families_food_fitness).

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