In recent years, one study after another has confirmed that the Mediterranean way of eating helps people live longer, healthier lives – with less heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. But how?
The Nutrition and Pharmacy teams at Wegmans Food Markets have been following the research and are creating educational materials to help customers understand how the Mediterranean Diet can be the centerpiece of a lifestyle that raises their odds of enjoying healthier better lives. At the same time, the current issue of Wegmans Menu Magazine features 30 new recipes that reflect principles of the Mediterranean Diet, featuring brilliant dishes that star seasonal vegetables like Butternut Squash Farrotto, Tuscan Roasted Cauliflower Soup, Spaghetti Squash with Vegetarian Bolognese and Eggplant Lasagna.
“A basic thing to understand is that the Mediterranean Diet isn’t like those fad diets most people drop after a week or two because they’re tired of eating that way,” says Wegmans Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager Jane Andrews, MS RD. “The Mediterranean Diet is actually a set of eating patterns that have sustained people living near the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. You can really stick with this way of eating because the food tastes great, you’re not going hungry, and it can be very affordable.”
Here are the basic Mediterranean Diet principles:
- Eat mostly plant-based foods – fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
- Eat fish two or more times a week.
- Eat “healthy” fats: Have olive oil, canola oil, avocado, or nuts instead of butter.
- Eat small amounts of dairy.
- Limit red meat and processed meats like hot dogs, sausages, or luncheon meats to two servings or less a week.
- If you drink, have red wine in moderation - one glass a day for women, two for men.
- Share your meals with others and make time to exercise daily and enjoy life!
Understanding why this is a healthy lifestyle is becoming clearer in light of recent research linking chronic inflammation in the body with poor health. Scientists are still decoding exactly how inflammation works, but there’s general agreement that chronic inflammation puts extra stress on organs and tissues, including the lining of blood vessels. Eating lots of highly refined or processed foods, fatty meats, and trans-fats can promote inflammation – raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancers.
One of the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet’s emphasis on fruits and vegetables and other whole, unprocessed foods, says Andrews, is that there are fewer wide swings in blood sugar – one cause of inflammation. “The Mediterranean Diet smooths out the peaks and valleys of blood sugar levels. That’s better for your body. But it also helps because you’re less likely to feel a ‘crash’ in your blood sugar, which leaves people feeling weak and so hungry they can’t wait to eat.”
One of the warning signs that may precede diabetes and heart disease is a condition called metabolic syndrome; over 25% of Americans are affected, and it can strike even before the adult years. Metabolic syndrome doubles someone’s risk of a heart attack, stroke or early death, and raises the risk of diabetes five times over someone without the syndrome. While diabetes often takes years to develop, damage to blood vessels and to the heart, eyes, kidneys, pancreas, and even feet may be underway well before it’s diagnosed.
You may have metabolic syndrome if at least three of these five conditions apply to you:
- Large waistline: Over 35 inches for men and over 30 inches for women.
- High blood triglycerides: Over 150 mg/dl (or you're on medicine to treat high triglycerides).
- Low HDL blood cholesterol: Less than 40 mg/dl for men and less than 50 mg/dl for women (or you're on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol).
- Elevated blood pressure: Over 130/95 (or you're on medicine to treat high blood pressure).
- Elevated blood glucose (fasting) Over 100mg/dl (or you're on medicine to treat high blood sugar).
“Metabolic syndrome is like a silent distress call from your body,” Andrews says. “People may not know there’s even a problem until they see a doctor for other reasons, but it’s something to really pay attention to, because it can affect your future health in such profound ways.”
The good news: You can delay or even prevent metabolic syndrome with lifestyle changes including better food, more physical activity, and working toward a healthy weight. “There’s no ‘cure,’ but with a lifelong commitment to better eating and exercise habits, and close work with your health care team, you can arrest the progression of disease, and do very well,” Andrews says, adding that eating the Mediterranean way is an excellent place to start.
What is it about the Mediterranean Diet that promotes good health?
- Foods emphasized in the Mediterranean Diet discourage inflammation – whole fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, whole grains and red wine. (By contrast, ingredients like sugar and refined flours contribute to wider swings in blood sugar levels – one cause of inflammation.)
- Fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in antioxidants – plant chemicals that repair damage to cells caused either by the byproducts of normal metabolism or environmental stresses.
- Being overweight (especially belly fat) increases inflammation and the risk of future ill health. Losing weight and keeping it off takes some attention and effort, but a plan like the Mediterranean Diet makes things easier because it offers so much variety, flavor, and satiety – that pleasant feeling having had enough to eat.
- Finally, daily exercise – one of the principles of the Mediterranean Diet – also reduces inflammation in the body.
Recipes in the fall issue of Wegmans Menu Magazine showcase just how delicious this way of eating can be. One of Andrews’ personal favorites is a traditional Italian dish often referred to as “greens and beans,” made with escarole, cannellini beans, and seasoning. “It’s delicious, filling, good for you, and inexpensive. What could be better?”
Well, maybe one thing: There’s another recipe in the magazine, says Andrews, for Tuscan Beans with Basil Pesto and Mushrooms, a fresh update to the traditional greens and beans. “I don’t know anybody who’s tried that dish who doesn’t love it!”