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Mediterranean Cuisine: The Fountain of Youth on a Plate


Most people agree that Mediterranean meals taste great. And nutritionists consistently claim that following a Mediterranean-style diet – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and a daily glass of red – promotes longevity.
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Most people agree that Mediterranean meals taste great. And nutritionists consistently claim that following a Mediterranean-style diet – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and a daily glass of red – promotes longevity.[i] In fact, studies show that eating this way lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and protects against chronic conditions ranging from cancer to stroke.[ii]
 
So when you're asking yourself what's for dinner, Mediterranean restaurants may be a top choice. Small tasting plates are common, enabling you to sample a variety of food without overdoing it. And if you wash it all down with a glass of red wine, well, that’s celebrated, too!
 
While it’s not clear which components of a Mediterranean-style diet offer the greatest health benefits, there are several likely candidates:
 
Salmon, Anchovies and Tuna: These Mediterranean staples are all rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the nutritional superstars responsible for lowering blood pressure and preventing blood clots (much like aspirin, but without the side effects). In one study, researchers tracked roughly 79,000 women for 14 years and found that those who ate fish at least twice a week had a 51 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke than those who ate fish less than once a month.[iii] Another omega-3 coup: improved mood. Omega-3s make cell membranes more fluid so they can communicate better with one another. And that means feel good brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine can get in and out of the cell more easily, translating to better mood.[iv]  Each of these fish has unique health benefits, too. Anchovies, for example, are packed with bone-building calcium and iron, and since they're low on the marine food chain, they don't harbor toxins like mercury. Salmon is a great source of immune-boosting beta-carotene. And while tuna is lower in omega-3s than both salmon and sardines, it's chock-full of high-quality protein and B vitamins like B6, B12 and niacin. Shoot for three to four ounces of your favorite variety two or three times a week.[v]
 
“Nightshade” Vegetables: Nightshade vegetables including eggplant, tomatoes, red bell peppers and potatoes are hallmarks of Mediterranean cuisine. And for good reason. Each of these disease-fighting powerhouses boasts maximum nutrition for minimal calories. Ever leave a cut apple in the air and watch it shrivel up and turn brown? That’s oxidation, and when it happens in your body – as it does everyday just by living and breathing – it can damage your cells and organs. Nightshade vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, which act as the body’s natural defense system, helping neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals that can damage cells. Rich in both color and nutrients, these vegetables offer a tasty way to meet your 8 – 10 fruits and vegetables a day. Eggplant boasts antioxidants called anthocyanins, plus a hefty dose of fiber – all for only 35 calories per cup. Tomatoes are a rich source of the plant chemical lycopene, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Red peppers are loaded with disease-fighting vitamin C (which also helps your body absorb iron). And potatoes are packed with potassium. In addition to lowering blood pressure, researchers suspect potassium counteracts some of the ill effects of salt, helping prevent the thickening of artery walls. Taken together, these nightshades pack incredible disease-fighting potential – and they taste good to boot!
 
Olive Oil: Olive oil is very high in antioxidant compounds called phenols and healthful monounsaturated fat. So it's no wonder that this heart-healthy oil has been linked with a reduced risk of a variety of chronic diseases. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, found that among people with high blood pressure, those who were given olive oil significantly lowered their blood pressure compared to those who were given sunflower oil (a typical oil used in the American diet).[vi] Two to three tablespoons daily can improve health, but at 119 calories per tablespoon, ask your server to go easy on this Mediterranean staple.
 
Red Wine: Red wine contains powerful chemicals called polyphenols that reduce cholesterol, prevent blood clots and lower blood pressure. The latest research suggests these potent chemicals also inhibit inflammation – the culprit at the crux chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Red wines pack a greater health punch than whites since polyphenols are more concentrated in grape skins (reds contain more material from the skins). Just keep your imbibing in check. Just one glass a day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man have shown health benefits.
 
Despite all of these health benefits, Mediterranean cuisine's greatest coup is taste! You'll indulge in flavorful fruits and vegetables, satisfying whole grains, fresh fish, aromatic spices and heart-healthy olive oils. The abundant pickings make eating this way an exciting flavor adventure. And it's about more than just the food you eat—it's the way you eat it: The pace is more relaxed, the food more energizing and the experience more joyful. So what are you waiting for? Select a Healthy Dining Mediterranean restaurant, order some mezze and a glass of red. Then toast to your health!

[i] Steele M. et al. “The molecular basis of the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease through healthy nutrition.” Exp. Gerontol. 2007;42(1-2):6-7.
[ii] deLorgeril M, Salen P. “Mediterranean diet and n-3 fatty acids in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.” J. Cardiovasc Med. 2007 Sep;8 Suppl. 1:S38-41.
[iii] JAMA 285; 304. 2001
[iv] Bowden, J. “150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.”
[v] Bowden. “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.”
[vi] Bowden. “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.”


About the Author:

Amy Paturel, M.S., M.P.H
Guest Blogger

Amy Paturel writes about health, fitness, food, wine and travel for a variety of clients from general interest magazines to medical e-zines. Her work frequently appears in such publications as Glamour, Health, Eating Well, Women's Health and Marie Claire. Amy is an award winning essayist and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). She has contributed essays to national and international magazines, newspapers and niche publications, and she has been featured twice in Newsweek's "My Turn" column.

Prior to devoting herself to writing, Amy researched and analyzed health behaviors for top governmental agencies including the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health Services. She earned a Master of Science in Nutrition and a Master of Public Health at Tufts University in Boston.

Amy's background in nutrition and affinity for cooking (and eating) has led to dozens of restaurant reviews for outlets such as CitySearch.com and Wine & Dine. She has a passion for food, adventure and travel and loves to share insider tips about various destinations.


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