November 21, 2008


by Julie Upton, RD

This past week I was in Boston, attending the 15th Anniversary Mediterranean Diet Conference, sponsored by Oldways.  A slew of world experts in nutrition were there, including doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health and the universities of Barcelona and Athens.

I listened to three days' worth of scientific presentations making the case about why we should be eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and limited in meats, dairy products, and sugary, overprocessed items. With a study this month showing that antioxidant supplements don't protect against cardiovascular disease or cancer, it’s refreshing to see so much research showing how a healthy (and delicious) dietary pattern can slash your risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions by up to 50%.

Most of the research presented reinforced that the best diet for our health is one that includes a plant-centric diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains; is low in dairy products and meats; and contains modest amounts of healthy fats, such as olive oil. People who mostly adhere to a Mediterranean diet can reduce their risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes by double-digit margins. In addition, the diet also helps with achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, because you won't feel like you're eating cardboard or engineered food.

What’s your Med mark?
Use this simple 10-point scoring technique to rate how your diet adheres to the healthful principles of the Mediterranean diet.

Is your diet...

  • High in vegetables? (At least 3 to 5 servings per day)
  • High in beans? (1 serving most days per week)
  • High in fruits? (2 or more servings per day)
  • High in grains, especially whole grains?  (At least 3 whole grains daily)
  • High in fish? (At least 2 servings per week)
  • High in nuts and seeds? (1 oz. daily)
  • Low in meat? (1 or 2 times per week)
  • Low in dairy? (A few times per week)
  • Mostly unsaturated fats?
  • Moderate  in alcohol? (1 drink per day for women; 2 for men)

Give yourself one point for each principle you follow.  A perfect score is 10 out of 10; if you scored between 6 and 8, you have moderate Med adherence. Less than 6? Your diet is low-adherence to a Med diet pattern.  Research shows that those who have the highest adherence have the most health-risk reduction, but even modest increases in your Med ways can provide healthy paybacks.

"Mediterranean-ize" your diet
Eating Mediterranean doesn’t mean you need to spend hours shopping for exotic ingredients or brushing up on your Italian.  Just making some simple swaps and substitutions can help you turn a typical American diet into a delicious Mediterranean-inspired meal plan. Here’s how to "Meditteranean-ize" some Yankee favorites.

AmericanMediterraneanWhy switch?
MayonnaiseHummusJust as creamy; more protein, fiber, and antioxidants
Mac 'n' cheeseLinguini primaveraMore veggies; healthier, unsaturated fats
ButterOlive oilSlash saturated fat
Meat potpiePortobello-and–goat cheese pizzaBoost vegetables and antioxidants; cut saturated fat
Potato chips with sour-cream dipBruschettaSame satisfying crunch but with more vegetables and healthy oils
NachosMixed nutsBar food with unsaturated fat vs. extra protein and fiber
Mashed potatoes with butter and milkRoasted potatoes with olive oil and herbsMore antioxidants; less saturated fat and fewer calories
CroutonsSpiced nutsMore fiber and protein
Chocolate CakePoached fruit with slivered almondsFewer calories, more nutrients; less sugar and fat