Evidence shows that a healthful way to fill your plate is Mediterranean style, culled from the ancient cultures that ring the Mediterranean Sea.
Remake your plate. The core of Mediterranean-style eating is creating a balanced diet of healthy fats, healthy carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables and fruits. The "emphasis on plant proteins is what makes this diet so healthy," says Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. Here's how to eat as if you lived on the shores of the glittering Mediterranean.
Eat more whole grains. Try to eat at least one serving of whole grains at each meal. Whole grains can help keep your blood sugar stable and lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Try these ideas to get started:
-- Choose bread with 100 percent whole wheat listed as the first ingredient.
-- Use millet as you would rice.
-- Toss a handful of barley into soups and let simmer 30 minutes until tender.
-- Check labels of crackers and other grain-based foods to see if they have more than 2 grams of fiber per serving.
-- For cold cereals, look for 4 grams of fiber per serving.
Use plant oils. Research shows that two tablespoons of olive oil a day can help prevent the inflammation that contributes to heart disease and other chronic health problems. Other healthy oils include canola, soy, and peanut. When cooking, don't let the oil smoke, which damages its nutritional properties and flavor. Strive to eliminate products containing hydrogenated oils and trans fats (check the labels). Also, start substituting olive oil for butter whenever possible. For interesting variations, experiment with one of the many flavored olive oils.
Eat more fruits and veggies. Fill up half of your plate each meal with vegetables or fruit. Instead of boiling veggies, which robs them of flavor and nutrients, try them sauteed with extra virgin olive oil, chopped garlic, and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Or steam veggies with several whole peeled garlic cloves; the flavor will permeate them beautifully.
Eat more fish. People who eat fish have healthier hearts than non-fish eaters. Try stocking your freezer and cupboards with salmon, tilapia, haddock, sablefish (also called black cod), herring, and sardines. Note: Most people tend to overcook fish. Measure the thickest part and cook 10 minutes per inch (for baking). If you're grilling or pan-frying, cook it until it just loses its glassy look.
Eat more nuts and legumes. These underutilized foods may help regulate body weight by suppressing appetite and increasing fiber intake, says Alison Coates, a researcher at the University of South Australia. Nuts also counteract high cholesterol. And Harvard researchers discovered in 2002 that women who ate more nuts and peanut butter had a lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who didn't. Legumes also provide healthful protein and are rich in fiber and minerals such as folate magnesium, and iron. At least one day a week, cook with beans, lentils, or other legumes instead of meat. Or try serving rice and beans. You can also create healthy lunches of hummus smeared on whole wheat pita.
Drink alcohol in moderation. Study after study suggests that a glass of wine or a cocktail with your meal can lower the risk of heart disease. Mediterraneans rarely drink to get drunk; rather, alcohol is a way to cleanse the palate and help digestion. Moderation is the key to benefits. Men can enjoy two drinks a day, women one. But more than that increases your risk for other diseases, such as breast cancer.
Eat more pizza. Italians who eat pizza twice a week can cut their heart attack risk by 56 percent, says Silvano Gallus, a researcher at Instituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri in Milan. Wait a second...pizza? Yes, but not the greasy dish most Americans know. Italian pies contain fewer calories and less fat. A healthy home option: try making Pizza Margherita recipe (below) with a 100 percent whole wheat crust.
Shop the Mediterranean way. Stock your kitchen with well-chosen canned, frozen, and fresh products for a tasty, nutritious breakfast or lunch on the table in less than 15 minutes, says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietician and author of Age-Proof Your Body. Try using this shopping list:
-- Extra virgin olive oil
-- A variety of canned beans
-- Canned tomatoes
-- 100 percent whole wheat pasta
-- Instant brown rice
-- Various frozen vegetables
-- Orange juice
-- Low or nonfat milk
-- Plain yogurt
-- Ready-to-eat fresh veggies like baby carrots and bagged spinach
-- Poultry, fish, eggs