As I mentioned last week in my column on nutrition and mental health, May is Mediterranean Diet Month. I’ve long been a fan of the Mediterranean diet, because it’s both nutritious and delicious. Part of the deliciousness comes from the fact that so many countries and food cultures fall under the Mediterranean diet umbrella. The countries that border the Mediterranean Sea include Greece and the southern parts of Italy, France and Spain, as well as Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco and more.
The Mediterranean diet is a satisfying, plant-rich way to eat that also offers heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, inflammation-fighting phytochemicals, gut-friendly prebiotic fiber, and a wealth of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. This traditional way of eating isn’t about any one particular food — it’s about how a variety of nutritious unprocessed and minimally processed foods work together in synergy. Here are six ideas for giving your meals a mini Mediterranean makeover:
Eat more dark leafy greens. Greens are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, as well as plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. Add kale, beet greens, mustard greens and collard greens to frittatas, scrambled eggs or bean and lentil soups, or sauté them with garlic and finish with a squeeze of lemon. Enjoy tender “baby” greens in a salad, perhaps dressed with an olive oil and lemon dressing.
Play with pulses. Pulses are an important part of the Mediterranean diet, especially chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils and fava beans. These and other pulses are common ingredients in soups, stews and spreads — hello, hummus — contributing protein, fiber and nutrients. If you are trying to eat more plant-based meals, but aren’t a fan of faux meats, then pulses will be a go-to protein source.
Make olive oil a mainstay. Olive oil is the common dietary denominator throughout the Mediterranean — Italy, Spain and Greece are the top three producers of olive oil in the world. Mediterranean cooks turn to olive oil for both cooking and baking — no, your muffins won’t taste like olives — and it’s important not just for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but also because it makes vegetables and pulses taste more delicious.
Hit culinary highs with herbs. Herbs are high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. While the exact herbs and spices used vary among the many different cuisines that fall under the Mediterranean umbrella — contributing to diverse flavor palates — they are universally important in the Mediterranean cuisine. Basil and oregano are key to Italian cuisine, while mint and dill are widely used in Turkish cuisine. You can of course use herbs and spices to add a flavor boost to any dish, but to be even more Mediterranean, add fresh herbs to salads — it’s a great way to make sure that bunch of parsley or basil you bought gets used up.
Nosh on nuts. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and other nuts are staples in the Mediterranean diet. Eat them on their own or chop and add them to salads and other dishes for heart-healthy fats along with protein, fiber and a wealth of nutrients.
Love a lemon. Lemons originated in the Far East, but were introduced to the Mediterranean long ago. Lemon juice and lemon zest are both high in healthy flavonoids — a class of phytochemicals — and the acidic juice brightens the other flavors in many dishes. Lemon juice is a staple ingredient in hummus, but you can also squeeze lemon juice on salads, fish, roasted broccoli, sautéed greens and beans, and into soups and drinking water.