So What Exactly Is the Mediterranean Diet?

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It sounds almost too good to be true: A diet that has been shown to increase longevity and help to stabilize blood sugars, reduce “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, lower blood pressure, and reduce your risk of several diseases—and that has enough variety and enough delicious foods that you’re actually happy to follow it.

In fact, the Mayo Clinic states that “an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.”

There’s no “official” Mediterranean Diet—the term refers to the traditional foods and dishes from the countries along the Mediterranean Sea, circling from Spain and southern Europe all the way across North Africa to Morocco. The cuisines of these countries focus on vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes (like chickpeas or lentils), and fish:

Think fragrant vegetable and lamb stews from Morocco or Turkey, creamy hummus and flatbreads from Israel, Lebanese tabbouleh, Greek-style chicken roasted with rosemary and lemon stuffed in the cavity, pasta primavera or marinara, and paella laden with a variety of fish and shellfish.

Foods are seasoned with aromatic spices, fresh herbs, and garlic rather than only with salt. Portions are often small, but many dishes may be served with the idea that they will be shared—think Spanish tapas, Italian antipasti, or the mezze platters of Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East.

What Foods Are Forbidden?

Although no foods are off-limits, certain foods appear less frequently or look different from their American counterparts. Countries along the Mediterranean are often mountainous or arid, so the terrain and climate aren’t suited to grazing cattle. As a result, beef and dairy foods from cow’s milk are rare. Rather than butter, for example, the primary fat is olive oil; yogurt and cheeses are traditionally made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. Authentic Italian-style pizzas have thin crusts, with a light dusting of cheese and minimal meat, rather than stuffed crusts, extra cheese, and several types of meat.

A few tips to making the most of the Mediterranean diet:

1 Watch portion sizes. If you love pasta, measure out a serving based on the Nutrition Facts label on the box. (In general, a one-pound box of dry pasta provides eight servings. If you cook for four people and your family usually eats one box at a meal, remember to double the information on the label.)

2 Limit high-fat foods. Opt for clear sauces (based on broth or wine) or veggie-based ones like tomato sauce, rather than creamy Alfredo or carbonara. Nuts and olives are a large part of the Mediterranean diet, but they are high in fat and should be eaten in moderate amounts—about a handful a day is enough to reap their benefits.

3 Think calcium. Because milk isn’t a big part of the Mediterranean diet, be sure to get adequate calcium from low-fat yogurt or leafy greens, or talk to your doctor about supplements.

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