The eating habits of the Mediterranean people are based on the agricultural products of their region, which has a long growing season and a rather mild climate. The traditional diets of the Greeks, French, Italians, Spaniards and Middle Easterners reflect distinct cuisines and culinary practices, but they also have a great deal in common.
Certain foods, such as beef and butter, were never very popular in the Mediterranean region because the region did not support the expansive grazing lands required to raise large quantities of buffalo and steer. Most cheeses are made from sheep’s milk and are lower in cholesterol than those made from cow’s milk. The region’s climate is favorable for growing olive trees, so olive oil is abundant and used in cooking instead of butter. With its monounsaturated fat, olive oil is much healthier than butter.
The Mediterranean people consume fish, poultry, game and lamb rather than beef. The meat of sheep, goats and chickens contains some fat, of course, but the Mediterranean people usually consume far less meat than their northern European neighbors. Wine, which has certain health benefits, is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and regions like Italy and southern France have, historically, produced wine and wine is what is served with meals.
Research suggests that the benefits of following a Mediterranean-style eating pattern may be many: improved weight loss, better control of blood glucose (sugar) levels and reduced risk of depression, to name a few. Eating like a Mediterranean has also been associated with reduced levels of inflammation, a risk factor for heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you’re trying to eat foods that are better for your heart, start with the principles of Mediterranean cooking:
- Focus primarily on plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Use whole, unprocessed ingredients and control portion sizes, salt and calories.
- Make sure your pantry and freezer contain staples like canned tomatoes, olives, whole-wheat pasta and frozen vegetables.
Experiment with “real” whole grains that are still in their “whole” form and haven’t been refined. Quinoa, a grain that was a staple in the ancient Incas’ diet, cooks up in just 20 minutes, making it a great side dish for weeknight meals. Barley is full of fiber and it’s filling. Pair it with mushrooms for a steamy, satisfying soup. Supplement your intake with other whole-grain products, like whole-wheat bread and pasta. Look for the term “whole” or “whole grain” on the food package and in the ingredient list—it should be listed as the first ingredient.
By displacing meat at some meals, you can lower your saturated-fat intake while adding healthful nutrients, like fiber and antioxidant-rich flavonoids. If you eat meat every day right now, try making a vegetarian dinner or swap out most of your red meat and replace it with skinless chicken and turkey, fish, beans, nuts and other plants.
Start by making a few small changes. This recipe is a great place to start.
Eggplant Souvlaki with Yogurt Sauce
Ingredients to serve 4:
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves or 2 teaspoons dried
- 4 teaspoons olive oil, plus extra for the grill
- Pinch each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
- 16 cherry tomatoes
- 1 small eggplant, trimmed and cut into 20 1/2-inch-wide half-moon pieces
- Olive oil cooking spray
- Two 6-inch whole-grain pita breads
- 1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
- 1 large yellow or red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
- 1/2 cup pitted black olives
- 1/2 cup diced red onion
- 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
4 metal or wooden 12 inch skewers (soaked if using wooden) or 8 smaller skewers (6-8 inches)
In a large bowl, whisk together lemon zest, 1/4 cup lemon juice, garlic, oregano, olive oil, salt and black pepper. Transfer half of the dressing to a second large bowl (for cucumber salad). Add tomatoes and eggplant to the first large bowl, tossing to coat. Let stand for 15 minutes.
Into the second bowl of dressing, add cucumber, bell pepper, olives and red onion; toss well and set aside.
Prepare yogurt sauce
In a small bowl, combine all yogurt sauce ingredients. Set aside in the refrigerator until serving.
Heat a stove top grill or grill pan. On each skewer, thread tomatoes and eggplant, dividing ingredients evenly among the skewers. Mist skewers with cooking spray. Place skewers on the grill; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, turning once or twice, until tender.
Mist pita with cooking spray and grill, turning once, until lightly toasted and warm, about 1 minute. Cut into quarters and divide among 4 serving plates.
Place each eggplant souvlaki skewer on a plate with yogurt sauce, salad and pita bread.