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A Mediterranean diet how-to guide

Sign up for online healthy eating series

Posted on April 28, 2021

OpinionColumnsLife

Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall

When you take a look at diet recommendations to live a healthy lifestyle, prevent disease or manage chronic conditions, you’ll quickly find that the bulk of what we should be eating is fruits and vegetables, while allowing room for whole grains, beans and legumes, white meat poultry and fish.

Healthy sources of fat include nuts, seeds and oils, such as olive or canola oil. If you haven’t heard about the Mediterranean diet, this is one you should definitely consider, especially if diabetes, heart disease or healthy aging are of importance to you.

The Mediterranean diet is not about eating Greek, Italian or any other cuisine. It gets its name because the dietary pattern was studied in the Mediterranean as a result of noticeably lower rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions in the region.

Researchers found that those in the Mediterranean region ate primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil. They ate lots of beans and legumes but also consumed nuts, seeds, white meat poultry and fish for protein. In addition to their dietary pattern, they were physically active and mindful of their choices, careful not to overeat and overindulge. Doctors, dietitians and health care professionals now recommend this way of eating, making the Mediterranean diet the top diet for overall health, long-term weight management and disease prevention since 2017.

This way of eating has also shown to help reduce the risk of cancer, macular eye degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease. The Mediterranean diet is very similar to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet known as DASH and these points have been included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans since 2015. So how can you start eating a more Mediterranean-style diet?

Start by swapping your fats from butter and lard to olive oil. You don’t have to buy the most expensive oil, and you can even buy store brand — just choose olive oil.

Next, start adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Planning meals ahead of time can help you be more intentional about eating fruits and vegetables or adding them into foods you already love. For example, if you are making spaghetti, add in spinach, onions, peppers and mushrooms. If you are making chicken salad, add more celery, apples and grapes. If you are having tacos, add tomatoes, peppers, onions and beans.

I recommend adding a fruit or vegetable to breakfast each day. This helps set you up for success. Set aside time to chop and cook vegetables you can throw into eggs for breakfast, and try adding real fruit to oatmeal.

Snacks are a great opportunity to focus on fruits and vegetables. My go-to snacks are produce and protein. This means I choose one produce item (typically an apple, banana or vegetable I can dip) and a protein (typically a low-fat cheese stick, nuts, peanut butter or hummus). Once you’ve mastered these strategies, you can begin choosing whole grains and lean proteins.

One idea you may have heard that might hinder you from taking action is “healthy eating is so expensive.” To be totally honest, all eating is expensive, but I think unhealthy eating is even more expensive. When you buy junk food, soda and foods that don’t keep you full, you are pouring money down the drain and weighing yourself down (pun intended).

When you stop spending on junk items and choose foods that keep you full, you spend less. You also make wise investment decisions for your body. You only get one body, so your health is an investment. Eating healthy is about the foods you choose, not the buzzwords on the packaging. You can eat economically and healthy at the same time by choosing foods that are in season, frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as canned fruits and vegetables.

When choosing canned vegetables and beans, look for “no salt added.” If this is not available, you can rinse these items in a colander and remove up to 40% of the sodium content. Cooking at home will also save you tons of money and is much better for your health, but the secret to success here is planning ahead.

If you are interested in healthy eating through the Mediterranean diet, visit wilson.ces.ncsu.edu to sign up for our healthy eating series beginning May 11. This will be an online series with a recipe tasting available for pickup at the end of the program.

Cassidy Hall is the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s area agent for family and consumer sciences.

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