By Meri Raffetto, Wendy Jo Peterson

The Mediterranean diet includes a specific balance of foods that’s high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and contains the perfect balance of fatty acids. Alas, you can’t just eat your way to Mediterranean health. Living a healthy lifestyle means you have to look at all aspects of your life. Along with the food plan is a way of life that includes regular physical activity and time for rest, community, and fun; for the folks on the Mediterranean coast, this combination seems to have created that ever-elusive life balance.

To tie all the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle concepts together, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust came up with the Mediterranean Food Guide Pyramid based on the dietary traditions of Crete, other parts of Greece, and southern Italy around 1960, when chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer were low. As you can see, the focus is on eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and seafood; eating less meat; and choosing healthy fats such as olive oil. Note also the importance of fun activities, time shared with family and friends, and a passion for life.

mediterranean-pyramid
Illustration by Liz Kurtzman

The Mediterranean Food Guide Pyramid.

Focusing on healthy fats

Although Mediterranean residents don’t consume a lowfat diet, their dietary pattern is considered heart-healthy. How can that be? Not all fats are created equal. People in the Mediterranean consume more of the healthier types of fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids) and less of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and saturated fats other cultures tend to overload on. Instead of focusing on total fat intake, these folks maintain a healthier ratio of these different groups of fats than you see in the United States; they consume about 35 percent of their total daily calories from fat, but less than 8 percent of their calories come from saturated fats. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average intake of saturated fats in the United States is 11 percent of daily calories.

To start rebalancing your fat ratio, limit your use of fats such as butter and lard in cooking and use more olive oils or avocadoes for spreads.

Don’t say “cheese”: Using dairy in moderation

You may think of the Mediterranean as a cheese-eater’s heaven, but the truth is that the Mediterranean areas we focus on don’t consume a lot of cheese. Dairy is consumed on a daily basis in the Mediterranean diet, and cheese (along with yogurt) is a common source of calcium; however, moderation is the key (isn’t it always?).

Incorporate two to three servings of full-fat dairy products daily. One serving may include an eight-ounce glass of milk, eight ounces of yogurt, or an ounce of cheese.

Eating primarily plant-based foods

One of the most important concepts of the Mediterranean diet pattern is consuming tons of plant foods such as fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. People in the Mediterranean commonly eat five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables each day, which often means having two to three vegetable servings with each meal. Other daily staples include legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas, and whole grains such as bulgur wheat or barley.

Foods in these categories are naturally low in calories and high in nutrients, which makes weight- and health-management easy. Begin by finding ways to incorporate more unprocessed plant foods in your diet on a daily basis.

Punching up the flavor with fresh herbs and spices

Fresh herbs and spices not only add tremendous flavor to food but also have many hidden health benefits. If you already use ample herbs and spices in your own cooking, you’re on the right track.

Enjoying seafood weekly

Seafood is a weekly staple in the Mediterranean diet, and with good reason. Not only is it a local product, but it’s also a great source of those coveted omega-3 fatty acids. If you live near a coast, you have a great opportunity to find fresh fish in your local stores and restaurants. If you’re landlocked, don’t discount lakes and rivers for fresh fish.

Don’t like fish? You can get omega-3 fatty acids in other ways, such as with fish oil supplements or by eating lots of fresh herbs, walnuts, omega-3 enriched eggs, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

Limiting red meat

Red meat used to be a luxury item in rural parts of the Mediterranean, so folks there ate it less frequently. Even though it’s now more accessible to the average Joe, the serving limits have stuck over the years.

Beef is only served once or twice a month in the Mediterranean rather than several times a week like in many U.S. kitchens. And when it does hit the table, it’s usually as a small (two- to three-ounce) side dish rather than an eight-plus-ounce entree. This habit helps ensure a reasonable intake of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids.

Don’t panic at the idea of cutting your meat portion so drastically. You can easily replace some of that meat with lentils or beans to add plant-based protein to your meals, or add more vegetable servings to help fill the plate. Also keep in mind that Mediterranean beef recipes are so full of flavor that a small serving becomes more satisfying.

Having a nice glass of vino

Wine lovers, rejoice! Drinking a glass of wine with dinner is certainly a common practice in the Mediterranean regions. Red wine has special nutrients that are shown to be heart-healthy; however, moderation is so important. Enjoying some red wine a couple of times a week is certainly a good plan for heart health, although you want to check with your doctor to ensure its okay for you.

Getting a good dose of daily activity

Historically, the people in the rural Mediterranean got plenty of daily activity through work, getting where they needed to go on foot, and having fun. The most notable difference is folks who lived in these areas participated in low-impact movement, like walking, kneading bread, and gardening, all day long. In today’s fast-paced environment, people tend to do one short burst of high-impact activity and then sit the rest of the day, a pattern still associated with a higher risk of heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, and mortality. Both types of activity are important for optimal health.

Although you may rely heavily on your car and think this lifestyle isn’t realistic for you, you can still find ways to incorporate both aerobic exercise (which gets your heart rate up) and strength-training exercises regularly.

Walking encompasses both aerobic and strength training and helps relieve stress. If you live close to markets or restaurants, challenge yourself to walk to them rather than drive, or simply focus on taking a walk each day to unwind. And don’t forget fun activities like hiking a trail, riding your bike, or taking a swim. Keep your body moving all day.

Taking time for the day’s biggest meal

Even though the Mediterranean residents of days gone by were hard workers, often doing a significant amount of manual labor, they always made time for their largest meal of the day. Traditionally, this meal was lunch, where people sat down as a family and enjoyed a large meal full of vegetables, legumes, fruits, and seafood or meat. Taking time for meal and family was a priority; you didn’t see people eating in five minutes at the countertop.

In many cultures, having this large relaxing meal at lunchtime is difficult because of work schedules. However, you can adapt this strategy into your life by focusing on supper. Prioritizing some time to unwind and relax from a busy workday provides other benefits for your family. According to a Columbia University survey, teenagers who eat with their families at least five days a week have better grades in school and are less prone to substance abuse.

Although taking time for a large, relaxing meal sounds like one of those optional strategies you can skip, keep in mind that even small lifestyle choices can make a very big impact on overall health. Family dinners can help you clear your head from work and provide enjoyment through good food and conversation. If you’re go, go, go all day at work, prioritizing family mealtime can be priceless for your daily stress management.

Enjoying time with friends and family

Community spirit is a large part of the Mediterranean culture and is something that’s disappearing in American culture. Getting together on a regular basis with friends and family is an important priority for providing a sense of strong community and fun. The fun and laughter that come with friendly get-togethers are vital for stress management. Without these little joyful experiences, stress can tip to an unhealthy balance.

To put this strategy into practice, invite some of your close family and friends over each week, perhaps for dinner. It can be as casual as you like. The important thing is to add this type of fun and enjoyment to your life more often.

Having a strong passion for life

The Mediterranean coast is full of sunshine, good food, and beautiful surroundings, so the people who live there naturally tend to have a strong passion for life, family, friends, nature, and food. Choosing to have a strong passion and love of life is associated with more happiness and fulfillment and less stress.

What are you passionate about? Perhaps you love the arts, or maybe nature is your thing. Whatever your passions are, make sure to find a way to make them a part of your life.