Earlier this month, U. S. News and World Report released its list of the best diets for 2018. An expert panel of nutritionists, dietary consultants and physicians ranked the Mediterranean Diet the best diet overall, with the DASH Diet tied for the top spot.
Although the Mediterranean Diet has been around for awhile, it still deserves attention. It isn’t a structured diet but an eating pattern that consists of an abundance of produce, whole grains and lean proteins. It is relatively rich in fats derived from heart-healthy sources, such as olive oils, avocados and nuts.
In general, people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and have fewer cancers and cardiovascular ailments than Americans. The Mediterranean pattern of eating protects against obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. It is a safe and healthy diet for all ages, from toddlers to seniors.
If you want to transition to more of a Mediterranean Diet, you can start with the following small steps.
1. Swap your fats. If you are using vegetable oil, coconut oil or butter, switch to extra-virgin olive oil. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that increases HDL, or good, cholesterol. HDLs help remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from our arteries. Use extra-virgin olive oil in homemade salad dressings, drizzle it on finished dishes, and swap it for butter in mashed potatoes or pasta.
2. Eat more fish. Fish is the go-to protein on the Mediterranean Diet, especially fatty fishes, such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. These fish are loaded with heart-healthy omega 3 fats. Start by designating one night a week as “fish night,” and work up to at least two fish meals a week. Try a tuna sandwich or grilled salmon salad for lunch once or twice a week. Think you don’t like fish? Try different kinds and recipes until you discover one that suits you.
3. Fit in more veggies. Incorporate veggies into your snacks. Try bell peppers, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. Dip them in some hummus. Add chopped spinach to your spaghetti sauce, or throw some in with your smoothie. Get at least two servings daily, but the more, the better.
4. Make the switch to whole grains. Switching to whole grain breads and pastas is great, but there are lots of other ways to work whole grains into your diet. Try quinoa or barley as a side dish. Have oatmeal for breakfast. Snack on plain popcorn. Try to make at least half your grain servings whole grain.
5. Eat some nuts. A handful of nuts in place of empty-calorie snacks, such as cookies or chips, is a great place to start. You’ll be adding heart-healthy fat, plus fiber and minerals, to your diet.
6. Use fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth. For a daily sweet treat, turn to fruit. Keep fresh fruit available for snacking, and use fruit for your dessert, even if you must sprinkle it with a little sugar or drizzle it with honey. Keep grain-based desserts, such as cakes or cookies, for special occasions only.
7. Sip a little wine. If you don’t drink, don’t start. But if you enjoy an occasional glass of wine, make it red and sip it with your meal. Keep it to just a glass and it fits nicely into the Mediterranean Diet.
8. Use smaller portions of meat. Put the emphasis on plant foods in your meals, and use meat as a side rather than the main focus. Make a vegetable stir-fry and serve with thinly sliced sirloin, or make whole grain pasta with an olive oil dressing garnished with sliced chicken. Experiment with meatless main dishes, and try to add one meatless meal to your weekly rotation. Eggs and dairy products are fine in moderation on the Mediterranean Diet. Eat red meat, such as beef and pork, less frequently and make it lean when you do.
9. Cut the salt. Practice seasoning with herbs and spices rather than salt. Use whole foods, and cook from scratch rather than relying on foods in boxes, bags and cans.
10. Lifestyle is an important part of the diet, including slowing down and taking the time to enjoy your meals. Regular social interactions and daily exercise also are encouraged.
You may think this diet would be costly to follow, but remember you will be eating smaller portions of meat, eating out less frequently and buying fewer prepared foods. This diet doesn’t require that you buy only fresh, organic or expensive foods. Shop for fruits and vegetables that are in season, and look for frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables with no added salt or sugar to stay on budget. normal ranges.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.