Mediterranean Diet Magic
by Marissa Cloutier, MS, RD
and Eve Adamson
Imagine yourself sitting in a sun-drenched outdoor cafT on the banks of the Greek Mediterranean shore. The vast turquoise sea meets the brilliant blue sky, and everything around you seems influenced by sea and sky, from the aquamarine-painted tables and chairs of the cafT to the foamy-white buildings and small shops jutting out over the seawall where the Mediterranean laps and splashes.
The warm sun on your shoulders and the cool sea breeze on your face enhance the spectacular view, as the fragrance of white flowers scaling a peach-colored trellis above your table mingles with the smells of salt and sea.
You feel yourself relaxing into your chair as you are gently serenaded by the musical dialect around you. You recall your morning trek across the vast white beaches, and images of ancient Greece envelop you. You can almost envision Socrates walking along the shoreline with tall Greek ships sailing in the far distance, the ruins whole, the early blossoming of Western civilization. Poseidon, that great god of the sea, is smiling at you, amused to see how easily the stresses of daily life have suddenly melted away.
Ah, the magical Mediterranean. With all its glorious old-worldliness, you feel connected with history. You feel completely at peace. And just when you think it couldn't get any better, you are awakened from your relaxed bliss by a waiter who brings you a bowl of fragrant, lemony soup the color of the sun, followed by a steaming plate of sea bass infused with oregano, olive oil, and lemon, surrounded by colorful roasted vegetables grown on the rolling hills just behind you.
With each bite you are catapulted further into the heaven that surrounds you. You cannot help but savor every mouthful. You've never tasted food so fresh, so wholesome. You feel renewed, even healed, down to your very soul.
Indeed, the sensual power of the Mediterranean cannot be ignored. Anyone who has traveled to this area cannot forget its beauty, its history, and its charm. Sun and sea, relaxed lifestyle, and miraculous food. These things are enough to draw anyone to the shores of the Mediterranean. Yet, the seductive Mediterranean climate, cuisine, and way of life aren't the only reasons to focus on this region's approach to eating. Study after study has revealed that people eating a traditional Mediterranean diet are generally healthier, longer-lived, and with a lower incidence of chronic diseases -- particularly coronary artery disease -- than people in other parts of the world.
Is it really possible to eat so well, savoring and relishing delicious food, and at the same time increase our wellness? In fact, it is possible, and also surprisingly easy to accomplish. We need only look to the Mediterranean lands of Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The Mediterranean Region
The Mediterranean region encompasses all the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, from the Strait of Gibraltar separating the rocky cliffs and crags of southern Spain and the seaport of Tangier in mountainous northern Morocco, to the Mediterranean's far western reaches along the shores of the Middle East.
Between these extremes lies a broad sampling of European, Middle Eastern, and African countries, all Mediterranean yet each unique in culture and character: pastoral southern France with its orange groves, vineyards, and rolling hills; scenic Italy with its snowy peaks and sultry beaches; the former Yugoslavia with its dramatic coastline; the tiny yet sensationally mountainous Albania; historical Greece with its hazy, sea-infused ambience and its scattering of islands; geologically volatile Turkey; the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with their coastal planes backed by a sudden rise of mountains; and then, returning east, the northern ends of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and back to Morocco, an African panoply of cliffs, peaks, ports, plateaus, and scorching sands.
Surely such a vast array of countries and cultures must dine on an equally vast assortment of foods. Although each country bordering the Mediterranean Sea does indeed have its unique culinary characteristics, the region maintains many common, and many more mutually influenced ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques. Pasta may come in the form of ziti in Italy and couscous in Morocco, but it is still pasta. Not insignificantly, Mediterranean countries also share an attitude toward food and how it should be eaten.
The Evolution of a Shared Cuisine
The magnificent diet of the Mediterranean region has been evolving for thousands of years. The history of the region coupled with its distinct (though widely various) climate and the pervasive influence of the sea has shaped the choice of foods and the types of cooking so characteristic of traditional Mediterranean culture. Bread, olive oil, and wine -- which continue to play a significant role in the Mediterranean diet today -- accompanied meals in ancient times. The cultivated vegetables and other plant-based foods so central to the diet can be traced back to Neolithic times. According to archeological evidence and depictions and descriptions of food and meals in the art and literature of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, ancient populations probably relied primarily on plant foods, with only occasional indulgence in meat and seafood.
More recent studies of the Mediterranean diet, from the 1950s and 1960s, reveal eating habits and preferences similar to the ancient diet: a primarily plant food?based diet that included minimal processing, whole grains, olive oil as the primary fat source, and animal products (with the exception of cheese in some areas and yogurt in some areas) consumed only a few times per month.
The groundbreaking Rockefeller Foundation study of the Cretan diet around 1950 stated that ?olives, cereal grains, pulses, wild greens and herbs, and fruits, together with limited quantities of goat meat and milk, game, and fish have remained the basic Cretan foods for forty centuries . . . no meal was complete without bread . . . [and] Olives and olive oil contributed heavily to the energy intake.? This study, originally undertaken to determine how the people of Greece could improve their diets after World War II, concluded that the diet couldn't get much better.
About The Author
M.S., R.D., is a professional nutritionist. She has served as the
Inpatient Clinical Dietician at Faulkner Hospital in Boston, and as the
Director of Nutrition for Physicians Weight Control Clinics, Inc., in
Eve Adamson is a freelance writer living in Iowa City, Iowa, who has written many magazine articles and books, including co-authorship of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga With Kids and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meditation and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Florida and specializes in holistic health subjects.