Those who follow the Mediterranean way of eating may have noticed that the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which characterizes the principle diet and lifestyle practices of regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, has had a facelift. The original pyramid, created by Oldways Preservation Trust (www.oldwayspt.org/) in 1993, has not changed much in principle: it was already based on solid scientific evidence linking diets of those in the Mediterranean region to good health, in particular heart health. The newly revised Pyramid is a result of the review of hundreds of nutrition studies conducted over the past 15 years by an international group of leading nutrition and health experts.
Although the foundation of a Mediterranean way of eating hasn’t changed, there are three principle changes that have been made to the pyramid:
- All plant foods are placed at the base of the pyramid. This includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil and whole grains. These are at the base of the pyramid to signify that these foods should be the basis every meal.
- The frequency of consuming fish and shellfish was increased to at least two meals per week. This is a result of the growing body of research linking its consumption to brain and reproductive organ health.
- Herbs and spices have been added to reflect the growing body of evidence linking their consumption to health benefits.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid can be found on the Oldways Preservation Trust website, http://www.oldwayspt.org/. Due to licensing issues, we cannot post it on this website.
Below are some highlights of the Pyramid, and what you should be eating.
Base of Pyramid: Daily Physical Activity and Enjoying Meals with Others
One key message in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is to engage in daily physical activity for good health. This includes planned activities like running, aerobics and swimming. More importantly is the focus on being physically active in daily living: such as doing yard work, going for a short walk, parking the car further away from a destination, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
In addition, the base of the Pyramid supports using foods as a means to pleasure and enjoyment. Eating and drinking in the company of others, savoring meals slowly, and sitting down at a meal can help achieve this.
Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Olive Oil, Beans, Nuts, Legumes, Seeds, Herbs and Spices
Including the above list of foods is central to a healthy diet, and that is why all of these foods fall in the same category, completing the base of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. These plant-based foods should be enjoyed at each and every meal, as research shows they promote heart health, overall health, and weight control.
Fresh fruits are abundant in the Mediterranean diet. Whole fruit is preferred over fruit juice to retain health-promoting dietary fiber, although 100% fruit juice can be consumed in moderation. Enjoying fresh fruit after a meal is a terrific substitute for high-fat desserts.
Try These: Figs, pomegranates, apricots, melons, apples, pears, lemons, and grapes.
Vegetables should form the foundation of most meals. Eating a variety of colorful vegetables, like dark leafy greens, vibrant reds, yellows and deep purple, is a sure-fire way to reap the array of nutrients and antioxidants these plant foods offer. Enjoy steamed, stir-fried, grilled, roasted or raw.
Try These: Artichokes, dandelion greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, cabbage, and leeks.
By making at least half of your grain choices whole grain, you’ll enjoy the health benefits of dietary fiber and a host of disease-fighting nutrients. Choose a variety of whole grains each day, from sources like oats, wheat, rice, corn, and rye.
Try These: Barley, whole wheat couscous, whole wheat pasta, crunchy whole grain bread.
Nuts and Seeds
These foods may be more calorie dense than their plant-food counterparts, but they pack a lot of nutrition in every bite. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of healthy unsaturated fats, and pack ample protein, dietary fiber, and zinc. Just remember to enjoy them in small quantities, as a little goes a long way.
Try These: almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, and chestnuts.
Beans are high in antioxidant nutrients, dietary fiber, and plant protein. Enjoy as the basis of meatless main dishes and you won’t miss the animal protein.
Try These: lentils, broad beans, kidney, fava, chickpeas, and yellow split peas.
Herbs and Spices
The newest addition to the Med pyramid, herbs and spices are an excellent substitute for blood pressure-raising sodium, with the added benefit of adding flavor and aroma to dishes. What’s more, herbs and spices are chock full of antioxidants– key players when it comes to improving your heart health.
Try These: Oregano, fennel, parsley, basil, dill, mint and sage.
Olives and Olive Oil
Like nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil are calorie dense, but play a central role in Mediterranean cuisines. Enjoy olives whole or chopped in spreads, dishes and sauces; and enjoy olive oil in cooking, baking, marinades, and to dress vegetables.
Try These: Kalamata olives, Nicoise olives, extra virgin olive oil.
One Level Up: Fish and Seafood
An ever-growing body of research links fish consumption (an excellent source of essential fatty acids called Omega-3) to improved cardiovascular health and brain development and lower risk of chronic disease. What’s more, when compared to beef, fish is a healthier lower-saturated fat protein source. Enjoy in at least two meals per week.
Try These: Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and tuna.
Next Level: Poultry and Eggs, Yogurt and Cheese
Unlike the typical Western diet, poultry, eggs, yogurt and cheese are enjoyed less frequently throughout the week. Poultry and eggs are a good source of protein, and can be consumed a few times per week. Be sure to remove skin from poultry and choose the white meat to reduce intake of saturated fat. If you have high cholesterol, consider limiting egg consumption to a few whole eggs per week. Dairy foods are consumed in moderate portions daily or weekly; be sure to choose 1% or nonfat milk, lowfat or nonfat yogurt. Good quality cheese should be limited to a few small portions per week.
Top of Pyramid: Beef and Sweets
Because beef is not as readily available in Mediterranean regions as it is in the United States, it is consumed sparingly. Because of it’s higher saturated fat content, beef should be limited, portion sizes controlled, and lean cuts chosen. Where dessert is concerned, its high sugar and fat content (and little to no nutrient value) relegates it to the “less often” recommendation for consumption. Fresh fruits are great tasting, lower in calories and have a much better nutrient profile.
Water and Wine
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid also highlights the importance of proper hydration to good health. Drinking calorie-free water throughout the day is key to good health.
Wine is regularly consumed in Mediterranean regions – in moderate amounts. It is generally recommended that women consume no more than one five-ounce serving, and men two five-ounce servings of wine on a daily basis. Always check with your physician before incorporating alcohol into your daily eating routine. Certain health conditions, including if you are trying to lose excess weight, preclude the consumption of wine on a regular basis.
It is important to point out that the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid’s guidelines are based on the diet and lifestyle practices of areas such as Crete, Greece and Southern Italy in the 1960's. Research from that time-frame indicated people in these areas had the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world, and life expectancy was of the highest at that time. This is pointed out because some people in these same Mediterranean regions today follow a more Westernized diet that includes more convenience and fast foods and have swayed from traditional practices.
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Written by Melissa Ohlson, M.S, R.D., L.D., Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation.