For the last decade we Americans have been looking overseas for the secrets behind the svelte waistlines of our European counterparts. Entire shelves at bookstores are stocked with diet books based on the way French women don’t get fat and the way Italians indulge their passion for pasta, chocolate and wine without putting on a pound. Even Spaniards and Greeks who linger over two-hour lunches consisting of three courses are slimmer than the typical American worker who squeezes in half a sandwich and a diet soda in front of the computer Monday through Friday.
The truth is the diet of those who live in countries with shores along the Mediterranean Sea is only part of the formula that keeps them slimmer and less likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer than Americans. The Mediterranean lifestyle calls for lots of walking, and its more leisurely pace allows for more time to prepare healthy meals, to eat slower and therefore to eat less, and to spend with family and friends. And since enjoying strong social and familial bonds are proven panaceas against the health and diet-destroying effects of stress, our European counterparts are better armed than we are in the battle of the bulge.
“Probably what these people have right is that they live much closer to the way humans were meant to live and the way humans have been living up until very recently in modern society,” says Jessica Black, a registered dietitian in Virginia who specializes in childhood obesity.
The tenets espoused by the Mediterranean lifestyle, it seems, are lost across the Atlantic. Americans place a premium on convenience due to our increasingly hectic and stressful work lives. The idea of a two hour lunch through the week is almost unimaginable. Outside of major metropolises like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, our cities are not pedestrian friendly, and given that we are more likely to move around the country for careers, our social and familial bonds tend to be weaker. It may, therefore, be unreasonable to completely overhaul our lifestyles to mimic those of Europeans, but there are certainly aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle than can be adapted to the American way of life. In fact the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines are currently being updated again for 2010 with recommendations that are more in line with the Mediterranean lifestyle, but in the meantime we can enjoy some of its slimming benefits without counting one calorie.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat up to 40% of total daily calories from monounsaturated fat sources, such as is found in olive oil, fatty fish, nuts and seeds.
Translation: Stop fearing fat. Use antioxidant-rich olive oil in cooking and in preparing foods such as salads and vegetables. Eat fish, a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids 2-3 times per week. Snack on almonds and walnuts which are heart-healthy monounsaturated fat gems.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat poultry and fish several times a week. Keep egg consumption to less than 5 per week. Eat red meat once or twice per month.
Translation: Replace red meat with protein sources that are lower in saturated fat. Replace a meat-based meal twice a week with a vegetarian protein source such as beans and lentils. Use two egg whites in place of whole eggs whenever possible.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat a low to moderate amount of dairy each day.
Translation: Eat only organic dairy, which is free of the hormones found in most US dairy products. Avoid sugary yogurts. Try Greek-style yogurt, which is low in sugar and high in protein. Add just a touch of honey for sweetness. Go for light cheeses and nonfat milk to meet calcium needs, and remember that certain vegetables, such as broccoli, provide calcium too.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible.
Translation: Aim for 7-9 servings of various colored high-fiber fruits and vegetables per day. Be sure to wash produce or buy only organic to avoid the pesticides so common in produce grown within our borders or shipped from neighboring countries. Try preparing vegetables with a bit of olive oil as recent studies show that a small amount of fat is necessary for the body to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients found in vegetables.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Incorporate a moderate amount of whole grain breads and high-fiber cereals into the diet. Another secret-seek out fresh, artisan bread and serve with high quality olive oil.
Translation: Avoid processed, low-fiber bread. Seek out good bread and serve with extra virgin olive oil, preferably cold-pressed. You’ll be satisfied sooner and eat less.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat fruit, one ounce of high quality dark chocolate, or a small piece of fresh cheese along with a small glass of red wine for dessert. And then, go for a walk.
Translation: Do what the Spaniards do and indulge in a portion-controlled dessert a few hours before dinner in the early evening and then take a walk. The ritual is called la merienda. Savor it-and don’t feel guilty.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Walk everywhere.
Translation: Buy a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day in addition to bi-weekly strength workouts at the gym.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat the biggest meal of the day midday while gathering with family or friends and then relax for a bit before heading back to work.
Translation: If you don’t have the luxury of an hour-long lunch, divide up a larger meal over the course of the late morning and afternoon. The more you eat earlier in the day the less you’ll eat overall. And, make time for friends and family, no matter what.
The Mediterranean Diet Way: Eat seasonally fresh and locally sourced food.
Translation: Avoid processed food whenever possible. Shop the parameter of the grocery store and shop farmer markets. Eat food as close to its whole natural state as possible. Recent studies show that chemically altered foods and preservatives confuse the body’s register of calorie consumption.