by Francesca Orlando, Nutritional Therapist
Every few years, a study is published showing the superiority of the Mediterranean diet. The most recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that when compared to other diets over a long period of time, the people who ate a Mediterranean diet had fewer cases of cardiovascular disease. According to the study, a Mediterranean diet consists of a high intake of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and cereals; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets; and wine in moderation, consumed with meals.
We have all heard about the French paradox: the French consume large amounts of wine and cheese; yet experience much less cardio-vascular disease than Americans. Yet, there is a lot of misconception about the Mediterranean iet. I was born and raised in Italy, and more often than not, when I introduce myself, I am instantly associated with the stereotyped image of pasta, pizza, and gelato. Since this could not be further from the truth, I am going to take you on a culinary trip of one of the healthiest diets.
First of all, there is no one traditional Mediterranean diet. Do not let the books out there fool you. Traditionally, there are several different Mediterranean diets, depending on geographical location, seasonal availability of food, regional traditions, etc. The coastal regions have a diet higher in fish, while goat, sheep, and dairy products are more predominant in the mountains. The French enjoy duck confit and liver pate, while the Greek feast on chickpeas, lamb and stuffed grape leaves. When I was growing up, we had liver once a week and fish once a week.
Unfortunately, there is no one book on the traditional Mediterranean diet, but if you would like to read more about the regional cuisine of Italy, I would recommend Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.
Regional differences apart, the populations living in the Mediterranean regions also share some super foods, and preparation techniques that allow them to get the most (nutrients, and health protective qualities) out of the foods they eat.
Let’s start with fat. Fatty acids have a number of different roles in our body. Among them, they make up every cell membrane in the body; they provide the raw material for healthy hormones; they are necessary in managing the inflammatory process; last, but not least, they make food taste good. Olive oil is one of the preferred cooking oils in the Mediterranean. It’s heart protective qualities are due to the high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidant substances. Olive oil is extracted by pressing olives, and, depending on the amount of processing involved, we have extra virgin, virgin, pure, light. I recommend extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in a dark glass bottle. Please keep your EVOO away from the light, and do not store it next to the stove; the best place is in the pantry. Olive oil is perfect raw, or used at medium heat in stir-fries, sauteing, simmering. Do not heat olive oil above its smoking point (350 degrees F). Other traditional sources of cooking fats and oils are butter, from cows grazing on pasture, and lard and tallow from healthy sources.
Nuts and seeds are another super food of the Mediterranean diet. Turkey is the third largest producer of nuts after China and the USA. We have pine nuts and hazelnuts in Italy; walnuts in France; almonds in Spain; pistachios in Greece.
Dr. Weston A. Price was a dentist who in the 1930s traveled the world in search of the perfect diet. What he found was that the diets of so-called primitive people varied greatly according to climate, food availability, etc., but he also found that there were several commonalities among the healthiest diets, one of which was the practice of soaking and/or sprouting nuts, seeds (please note that legumes and grains are indeed seeds).
In a nutshell (pun intended) soaking and sprouting neutralizes anti-nutrients (phytates and enzyme inhibitors) contained in nuts and seeds, therefore making nutrients, namely minerals and amino acids, more bio-available. Seeds naturally contain substances to keep predators at bay, and soaking begins to predigest the seeds.
Traditionally Mediterranean cultures have soaked/sprouted and dehydrated nuts and seeds, but soaking and sprouting now is relegated to family tradition. And while the majority of nuts and seeds are sold raw, in bulk, and in shell, it is not difficult to find less healthy nuts and seeds that have been roasted and coated.
The tradition of properly preparing nuts may be not as big of a practice anymore, but it still continues in the preparation of legumes. The people living in the Mediterranean regions have a high consumption of legumes, which provide the best sources of slow-released starches in the diet. Despite their high content of starch, legumes do not spike blood glucose levels as much as refined grains do, and, when properly prepared and combined, like in the Mediterranean diet, they are a nourishing addition to a healthy diet. Properly preparing legumes requires soaking them overnight in an acidic medium (either lemon or lime juice, or whey) prior to cooking. This technique reduces some of the anti-nutrients mentioned above, and it also predigests the starch content of the legumes, making them more digestible.
Another characteristic of the Mediterranean diet is the high consumption of fresh, local vegetables and fruit. I would like to stress the fact that fresh and local is always best, no matter what food we are talking about. For fruits and vegetables especially, fresh and local produce is picked at its ripeness, and when grown on rich soil (crop rotation and other traditional farming techniques are used in the Mediterranean regions), it is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals.
Ultimately, whether you are heading to the store to buy extra virgin olive oil, or you are about to soak raw almonds in water and Celtic sea salt, I cannot stress enough the benefits of a natural diet, void of processed, refined, man-made concoctions. One of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, like any healthy diet, is that it is absent of overly refined, industrial foods.
Francesca Orlando is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in private practice in San Diego, CA. She is a certified GAPS practitioner and a Lead Instructor for the Nutritional Therapy Association Inc. Her expertise in traditional diets comes from a family background in biodynamic farming, wine making and the Slow Food movement. She is a follower of the works of Dr. Westin A. Price and Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. and believes that food is medicine and that through proper nutrition the deleterious effects of the standard American diet can be reversed. You can reach her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her Website, www.healthfullivingsd.com.