As a nutritionist, if there’s one piece of eating advice I could give to the general public, it would be this:
As much as possible, follow a Mediterranean diet.
Maybe I should have this as a bumper sticker on my car, or printed on my business cards, or tattooed on my forehead. The Mediterranean diet, over and above any other diet or eating approach I know of, has been proven to have the most benefits for both physical and emotional health. Research has confirmed that it reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. And if you think what you put in your body doesn’t also affect your mind, think again: one long-term study showed that people who ate a Mediterranean diet were 50% less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Top that, Paleo.
But what actually IS the Mediterranean diet, and how do you follow it? Do you get to eat pizza and wine all the time? Or lots of exotic North African spices? Or since the Mediterranean is a sea, do you have to eat weird sea creatures, like octopus? Thankfully, no. Anyone who tells you you have to eat octopus is selling something (and it’s probably octopus).
At its most basic level, the Mediterranean diet is simply a common sense healthy approach to eating: lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, not a lot of meat, etc. But there are some key elements that differentiate the Mediterranean diet from, say, the generic advice your doctor might give you when they send you away with the less-than-helpful prompt to “eat healthier” and “lose a few pounds.” These include:
- Plenty of fish and other seafood
- Lots of beans, legumes, and nuts
- Moderate amounts of dairy (especially yogurt)
- Using herbs, spices, oils, and vinegars to flavor foods
- Moderate wine drinking (especially red wine)
- Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil
If you’re ready to make some positive changes to your diet in the direction of the Mediterranean, but aren’t sure how, a great way to start is to begin working on your pantry (and fridge, but for this post, let’s focus on all things shelf-stable). Of course, I also encourage you to try out recipes that are specifically geared toward the Mediterranean diet–like anything prominently featuring whole grains, vegetables, legumes, or fish–but before you get there, you can set yourself up for success by gradually filling your home with Mediterranean-friendly foods. Having an arsenal of healthy items on hand will increase the likelihood of your actually using them! Even if all you do is pick up a couple of the items listed below each grocery trip, those small changes can add up to a major difference in the meals you cook and eat.
Here are some ideas for what it looks like to build your Mediterranean-friendly pantry:
America is in the midst of a Grain Renaissance. Never before have so many interesting grain options been so readily available in mainstream grocery stores. Here are some excellent choices:
- Arborio rice for risotto
- Cornmeal or polenta
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat or white whole wheat flour for baking
Fruits & Vegetables
Canned fruits and vegetables have a come a long way since the days of the repellant green beans a lunch lady plopped on your plate in second grade. Even regular grocery stores are coming out with updated versions of canned and jarred fruits and veggies, like:
- Roasted red peppers
- Diced tomatoes
- Canned artichokes, pumpkin, corn, mushrooms, and others
- Dried fruits like figs, cranberries, and apricots
- Canned fruits in fruit juice, not heavy syrup
Beans, Legumes, and Nuts
Beans get a bad rap, but they’re my personal favorite category of the Mediterranean diet. They’re high in fiber and protein, low in fat, endlessly flexible, and easily included in so many dishes. Here are several bean/legume/nut suggestions for your pantry:
- Beans: chickpeas, cannellini (white) beans, black beans, kidney beans, chili beans
- Lentils: green, brown, red, black, French
- Nuts: almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios
Many of the primary protein sources in the Mediterranean diet come from foods most people eat fresh, rather than preserved, and beans/legumes cover a lot of protein ground, leaving few other shelf-stable protein options. Still, canned seafood comes in handy in many recipes:
Seasonings: Oils, Vinegars, Herbs, & Spices
The possibilities for flavor combinations are endless when you have a well rounded collection of these items. Examples include:
- Lots and lots of extra virgin olive oil
- Vinegars: balsamic, red wine, white wine, rice vinegar
- Dried herbs: basil, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, thyme
- Spices: cumin, chili powder, black pepper, nutmeg
- Honey for sweetness
And now that we’ve said “wine,” we’ll end there! But stay tuned for an upcoming review of a fabulous Mediterranean cookbook I highly recommend!