How to Eat Like, and Live as Long as, a Mediterranean

Your big, low-fat, Greek diet: Study shows what parts of the Mediterranean diet are the healthiest.

June 29, 2009

Tree of life: Olives are a major reason the so-called Mediterranean diet is so healthy, according to new research.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It’s all about the olive oil, vegetables, and wine, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal. The study, which followed Greek men and women for about 9 years, found that people who had a higher compliance with the standard Mediterranean diet (lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil, and less meat and dairy) were more likely to outlive those on a more Westernized diet. Ironically for an eating style named after a sea, the biggest impact on longevity wasn’t boosting fish intake; it was moderating alcohol consumption and increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.

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Now that summer is in full swing and Mediterranean foods are finally appearing at farmer’s markets across the country, you should give the diet a try. Here’s a day’s worth of recipes to get you started.

Avocado Breakfast
Avocados, flaxseed, and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fat, which contributed to a 106 percent increase in longevity in the study. Adding the tomato improves your heart health, too, according to studies that suggest the tomato-olive oil combination reduces your risks of heart diseases more so than when the two are eaten separately. And this nutrient-packed breakfast will take you all of 8 minutes to make.

Ingredients
2 teaspoons honey mustard (use the lowest-sodium one you can find)
2 slices whole grain bread, toasted
½ avocado, peeled and sliced
½ tomato, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ tablespoon ground flaxseeds
Ground black pepper

Directions
1. Spread 1 teaspoon of the honey mustard on each piece of toast. Add half of the avocado and tomato to each slice. Drizzle each with the oil. Add half of the basil and flaxseed. Sprinkle both with pepper (to taste).

2. After all the ingredients are loaded, cut each piece of bread into quarters to make it easier to eat.

Serves: 1

Midmorning snack: Greek yogurt with honey and fruit
Mediterranean diets incorporate much fewer dairy products than Western diets, and the dairy products it does include tend to be lower in fat. Greek yogurt is much thicker than American yogurt and is surprisingly low in fat. Some brands, such as Stonyfield Farm’s Oikos Organic Greek Yogurt, even have zero fat grams and only 80 calories in a 5.3-ounce serving. Sweeten it with honey, which won’t cause your blood sugar to spike, and add a few grapes or other fresh fruit. Another benefit to a snack like this one, which includes all low-glycemic foods, is that it will keep you from overeating at lunch and burn more calories during a lunch-hour workout.

Lunch Soup: Gazpacho
Even though this study focused on Greek citizens, the Mediterranean diet includes food from any country bordering the Mediterranean. Gazpacho is a traditional Spanish dish that includes tons of vegetables, and because the soup doesn’t need to be cooked, you retain all their nutrients. Make it on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll have enough to last you an entire week. (Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes)

Ingredients
5 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1½ cups chopped, peeled cucumber
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 small white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup tomato juice
1 cup beef broth
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, plus sprigs for garnish
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Salt & ground black pepper to taste

Directions
1. To peel the tomatoes, plunge them one at a time into a saucepan of boiling water, and cook for about 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon. Cool, core, and slip off the skins.

2. Reserve some chopped tomato and cucumber for garnish. In a food processor, in batches, pulse the remaining tomatoes and cucumber with the bell pepper, celery, onion, and garlic to a chunky puree. Add tomato juice as needed to thin the mixture.

3. Transfer to a large bowl or container, and stir in any remaining tomato juice, the broth, parsley, vinegar (if using), and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or until ready to serve.

4. Ladle into bowls and top with the reserved chopped tomato and cucumber and a sprig of parsley.

Serves: 6

Lunch Salad: Popeye and Olive Oil Salad
If you prefer something a little easier to whip up, this quick salad recipe is packed full of high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries and spinach, with a dressing of healthy-fat olive oil and red wine vinegar. Researchers believe that red wine vinegar has the same levels of the cancer-fighting flavonoid resveratrol as red wine, and its cancer-fighting benefits are doubled when paired with fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C like those here.

Ingredients
1½ cups chopped baby spinach leaves
1½ cups chopped romaine lettuce
3 slices prosciutto, chopped
1/3 cup mandarin orange slices
1/3 cup sliced strawberries
2 tablespoons diced red onion

FOR DRESSING:
1½ teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ clove garlic, crushed
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Directions
1. Mix all salad ingredients in large bowl.

2. Mix dressing ingredients in small bowl with a fork.

3. Drizzle dressing on salad mixture and toss.

Serves: 1

Midafternoon Snack: Dried fruit and nuts
Dried fruits and nuts are classic Greek snack foods. Make your own Mediterranean “trail mix” by combining healthy walnuts, which have lots of protein that help you feel full, with dried fruits like apricots, figs, or golden raisins (look for dried fruit that doesn’t have added sugar). One classic way of fixing them is to take the nutmeat from seven whole walnuts and stuff each piece into the dried fruit of your choice.

Dinner: Gianna’s Grilled Stuffed Eggplant
There aren’t many summer vegetables as tasty as a really well-cooked eggplant, and it’s another favorite in Greek recipes. Eggplant has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is in season starting in July—the perfect time of year for a leisurely dinner outside, just the kind our Mediterranean friends enjoy. Pair these stuffed eggplants with boiled leafy greens, another Greek classic. Use any kind you like, whether spinach, dandelion or mustard greens, or even wild nettle. Boil the greens in salted water until soft and then serve them hot or at room temperature, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Round out your dinner with a glass of wine if you like; in the study, the longest-living participants consumed about one glass (for women) to three glasses (for men) per day.

Ingredients
3 small eggplants, halved lengthwise
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup seasoned dry bread crumbs
3 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions
1. Preheat the grill to medium-high.

2. With a small, sharp knife, cut a grid of ½-inch squares in each eggplant half as close to the skin as possible without cutting through. Scoop out the flesh of each eggplant and place in a medium bowl. Add the cheese, bread crumbs, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Stir to mix. Stuff the mixture tightly into each eggplant half. Drizzle with the oil.

3. Place the eggplant halves on an aluminum foil pan. Set on the grill. Cover and grill for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft and the top is golden and crisp.