Lessons from the Mediterranean

Maybe it's because I live in the Okanagan Valley with its lovely Tuscan feel. Or maybe it's because I love whole, healthy, yet simple food. Whatever it is, I love mediterranean cooking. I love the flavours, colours, and smells that waft from my kitchen whenever there's italian cooking on the stove. Ahhhhh, it's heavenly. The Mediterranean Diet, a diet from the countries that live around the Mediterranean Sea, has been very popular in the press lately. It's been popular for years, and its latest renaissance is due to its heart-protective and blood-sugar-balancing properties (properties we could all use today...). I would argue that all traditional diets have these health-promoting properties, but I will admit that this way of eating is one of the easiest for us in Canada. The food is readily available in our grocery stores, and much of the food is quite familiar to us...well, in theory.

Italian food Canadian-style! A trip to a mainstream Italian franchise restaurant won't give you the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. None at all, the opposite really. In North America, we tend to change enough parts of a traditional diet that it's no longer a version that even resembles a healthy diet. Want an example? Let's look at pizza:

In North America: Frequently titled "Meat Lovers" or "Cheese Lovers", these pizzas are HUGE, with a thick, fluffy crust and enough cheese and meat to feed a small village in Italy

In a small town in Italy: vegetables, herbs, and garlic are layered on a thin, whole grain crust. Drizzled with olive oil and finished with a dusting of locally made cheese. Man, that sounds delicious!

It's in our nature to try to tease out the healthy ingredients in traditional diets. What makes them so healthy? In the Mediterranean Diet, we've spent years and millions of research dollars trying to solve this puzzle. Is it the extra virgin olive oil? Maybe the high fish consumption? Wine maybe? I will argue that this pursuit is fruitless and unnecessary, because the benefit of this diet is the synergistic qualities of the full diet itself. You can't pour extra virgin olive oil on a North American version of the pizza and suddenly make it healthy. We need to embrace the cultural traditions of this diet to find the full benefit.

Lessons from Crete The diet that's been studied as the healthiest Mediterranean Diet is the diet from the small Greek island of Crete. Here many old world traditions are still alive and thriving, and they have some lessons to share.

How you eat is important Time and quality is the most important aspect of their diet. They start with beautiful ingredients, prepared simply but deliciously, and they take time to eat and enjoy the food. For most of us, we just don't make the time to properly eat a meal. "Wolfing" down our meal in about 5 minutes leads to overeating and indigestion (hello heartburn!). As well, meal time is a great time to catch up with your family and check in. Try spending 15 - 20 minutes eating...and in Crete they tend to spend at least an hour.

Synergy is key Extra virgin olive oil brings out the flavour of foods and helps to absorb fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants in foods like tomatoes and peppers. Balsamic vinegar or lemon juice helps to break down the oxalates (anti-nutrients) in leafy greens and breaks down phytic acid (another anti-nutrient) in grains and breads.

Each ingredient in a meal helps the body digest and absorb the nutrients, as well as makes the meal delicious. A dry salad without dressing may seem "healthy", but the body needs the healthy oil and vinegar for digestion (yippee!)

Traditional foods, traditional methods In Crete you'll find lovely, olive-smelling extra virgin olive oil in most houses and traditional wild greens. Combining them with a bit of lemon juice is a favourite mid-afternoon snack. The salad greens we have in our grocery stores have been bred to be sweeter and therefore are lacking the bitter qualities that make our gall bladder and liver happy. Incorporating wild greens can seem daunting, but you might be surprised what you have growing in your backyard.

Dandelion greens - Okay, they are a bit of an eyesore to a lawn enthusiast, but they are incredibly healthy for the liver, kidneys, and gall bladder. Some small produce shops and health food stores carry dandelion greens, or grab some from your lawn! I wouldn't recommend borrowing some from your neighbour...they may have sprayed them with a pesticide.

Purslane - This wild green is the only weed in my garden I don't mind. With the highest amount of omega 3s of any leafy green, it really is a nutritional powerhouse. Pictured here is  my largest purslane "weed" currently in my garden. It's hanging out with the arugula right now.

But how do I actually eat this way?Dietary change isn't easy, and the only way to tackle a hard problem is to shrink the change. No, you don't need to move to Italy or Greece to have a healthy life. We can do it at home :).

Start with small steps....buy a lovely bottle of cold-pressed (or stone pressed) extra virgin olive oil and enjoy its olive-y goodness. Seek out some wild greens and add a small amount to your favourite salad. Buy a basil or oregano plant and add it to your meals. Then try experimenting with some yummy new recipes, like the one below.

The health benefits of this diet and many other traditional diets can be incorporated into your lifestyle with a few, relatively easy steps. First step is to start! Second step is to enjoy the fruits of your labour :)

Wild Green Salad From "The Jungle Effect" by Daphne Miller

2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar 1 clove garlic 1 tsp of lemon juice 1 tsp chopped fresh oregano, marjoram, thyme, or mint 6 loosely packed cups of wild greens of your choice (such as chicory, dandelion, purslane, or arugula)

In a large salad bowl, mix together olive oil, vinegar, garlic, lemon juice, and herbs. Add wild greens and toss.

Note: By putting the dressing on the bottom of the bowl, you will find that your greens become lightly coated with flavour. Pouring the dressing on the top tends to make them clumpy and soggy.