Food for Life


By Lavinia Spalding  |  

For breakfast tomorrow, how about a bowl of tangy Greek yogurt topped with fresh apricots, almonds, and a drizzle of local honey? For lunch, how does a peppery arugula salad with cucumbers, radishes, feta, mint, and olives sound? Or a hearty pumpkin soup with tomatoes, turmeric, cinnamon, and cilantro?

Dinner might be orecchiette, or “little ears,” the small pasta disks from Puglia (the heel of the Italian boot) cooked al dente with chopped broccoli rabe—blanched until just crispy-tender—and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, minced fresh garlic, hot red chilies, and lemon zest. If these dishes sound delicious and simple, it’s because they are. If they sound healthful, it’s because they’re examples of the Mediterranean diet.

Of course, this probably isn’t the first you’ve heard of this diet, often referred to as the world’s most healthful. Mediterranean cuisine has been a source of interest since the ’50s and ’60s, when nearly 12,000 men from seven countries participated in a celebrated 12-year dietary study. The results suggested that people from the Mediterranean region were less likely to experience heart problems. Soon afterward the “Mediterranean diet” was born, combining elements of cuisines from Italy, Spain, Greece, southern France, and parts of the Middle East, and relying mainly on fresh veggies, fruits, fish, grains, legumes, nuts, cheese, and olive oil. (Meat, sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods are largely avoided.)

A string of studies has since reported the diet’s long list of potential advantages—from protection against cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s to increased mental agility, fertility, and longevity. The benefits aren’t just health related, says Nancy Jenkins, author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. The food tastes good, the ingredients are accessible, and the recipes are surprisingly simple.

“It’s a delicious way to eat but also an easy way to cook: Vegetables are steamed, then sautéed in a little extra virgin olive oil. Add a good carb such as brown rice or bulgur wheat dressed with olive oil and a spritz of lemon, some fresh herbs, and that’s it!” she says. “No one needs to be told that this is a fantastically healthy way to eat—the evidence has been piling up for years, and it just gets stronger with each new study.”

Healthy Hearts and Minds

Even so, the diet is once again making headlines. It’s being reinvigorated not only by new research into how it affects long-term health but also by fresh culinary influences that broaden its appeal.

A recent clinical trial tracked 7,447 participants with major risk factors for heart disease and found that people with previous coronary incidents who ate a traditional low-fat diet had a 30 to 50 percent higher risk of heart attack and stroke than those on a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts or extra virgin olive oil. In fact, the evidence from the first four years of the study was so strong that the researchers decided to end the trial early.

Meanwhile, another new study—the largest of its kind to date—suggests that sticking closely to a Mediterranean diet may help stave off dementia. Four years after more than 17,000 men and women shared data about their diet, the study reported that those who adhered to the Mediterranean diet were 19 percent less likely to have experienced cognitive problems such as memory loss.

Beyond Club Med

It’s hard to imagine improving upon this path to wellness, but leave it to the renowned physician Andrew Weil—founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine, University of Arizona—to crank up the diet’s nutrition quotient and make it tastier and more accessible. Weil has created a food pyramid, co-founded a successful chain restaurant, and authored a cookbook, all based on the Mediterranean diet—but with a few special twists.

While researching his book on aging, Weil explains, he encountered the idea that many chronic diseases begin as low-level inappropriate inflammation. “It seemed the most important strategy for optimizing health, maximizing longevity, and reducing the risk of serious disease was to lead an anti-inflammatory lifestyle,” he says. “And a key to that is the anti-inflammatory diet. So I used the Mediterranean diet as a template but added Asian influences and tweaked it to make it especially powerful for containing inflammation.”

If you already eat healthfully, following Weil’s instructions won’t be a stretch. Start by eliminating processed foods, filling up instead on fresh produce of all colors—from apples and artichokes to blueberries, beets, and bok choy. Kick the bread habit and stick with true whole grains like brown rice, barley, farro, and quinoa. Intact grains have a lower glycemic index (which indicates how a food affects blood sugar levels). But when such grains are ground, the index rises, meaning that even whole-wheat bread can cause blood-sugar spikes. If you can roll a piece of the bread into a marble-size ball, Weil says, it will digest too quickly and is best avoided. Weil’s eating plan does allow for organic pasta, but it’s always cooked al dente—again, the impact on blood sugar is lower when pasta is really chewy.

Instead of red meat and poultry, says Weil, opt for vegetarian protein sources like beans and legumes. But feel free to indulge in moderate amounts of high-quality dairy like yogurt and natural cheeses, and embrace two Mediterranean staples: nuts (especially walnuts, which provide omega-3 fatty acids) and extra virgin olive oil, which contains polyphenols and can lower disease risk.
“Rely on olive oil as your major fat,” Weil advises. “It’s the one associated with the Mediterranean diet for which we have the best evidence for health benefits.” What’s more, he says, it has a unique anti-inflammatory component.

Olive oil is a key ingredient at True Food Kitchen, Weil’s restaurant chain. When considering meal preparation, remember that quick and simple low-temperature techniques yield the best results. At True Food Kitchen, that often means stir-frying—always with “good” oils like top-quality extra virgin olive, organic expeller-pressed canola, or grapeseed. For fish and veggies, steaming works beautifully and preserves nutrients well.

And you might be surprised by how delicious raw ingredients can be: One True Food Kitchen favorite is Tuscan kale salad with garlic, red pepper, and pecorino Toscano. When marinated in citrus and salt for 15 minutes, the kale becomes tender and loses its bitterness, resulting in perfectly succulent salad greens.

From astragalus root to zaatar, herbs and spices play a starring role in Weil’s new cookbook, True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure. “There’s been a great deal of research into turmeric as a natural anti-inflammatory,” says Weil. Ginger, another potent anti-inflammatory, and garlic, a natural antibiotic, also rank high. Fresh is always best—Weil suggests keeping herbs in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge. As you expand your spice cabinet and repertoire, try shifting your view of herbs and spices: They’re not just flavor; they’re food.

Where Weil modifies the Mediterranean diet most is by adding an Asian twist: Brussels sprouts are stir-fried with tamari sauce; long green beans with sesame and citrus. He makes liberal use of Asian mushrooms, too: Shiitake, maitake, oyster, and enoki have anticancer, antiviral, and immunity-enhancing properties. Plus they deliver the rich, savory fifth taste of umami to the palate.

“The success of True Food Kitchen testifies to how much people like this kind of food,” Weil says. “When you start eating this way, you don’t feel deprived—you enjoy your food even more. You don’t even have to tell people it’s healthy; it’s just good food.”

Six to Skip and Stock

To follow Weil’s approach, avoid foods that promote inflammation and choose ones that keep inflammation at bay.

Skip:

  • Processed oils like cottonseed, soybean, and peanut.
  • High-glycemic tropical furits like bananas, pineapple, mango, and papaya.
  • Refined, processed, and manufactured food, including quick-digesting carbs like bread, white potatoes, crackers, chips, and pastry.
  • Coffe.
  • Sugar—even juice. “Fruit juice is a concentrated sugar source,” Weil says, “not that different from soda in its impact on blood sugar.”
  • Red meat and poultry.

Stock:

  • Whole grains and cracked grains.
  • Plain dark chocolate, which is low in sugar, provides a healthy fat, and contains beneficial antioxidants.
  • Tea—high-quality white, green, or oolong.
  • Oils—the best choices are extra virgin olive, coconut, grapeseed, organic expeller-pressed canola, avocado, sesame, and palm fruit.
  • Oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like wild Alaska salmon, sardines, herring, and black cod, or an algae-based supplement with both DHA and EPA, plus vegetarian omega-3 sources like flax and hemp seeds.
  • Cool-climate fruits like berries, cherries, apples, and pears.
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Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away.