The magic of the Mediterranean diet is that it manages to satisfy both chefs and nutritionists. With its bounty of vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains, its garlic and herb seasonings, its luxurious use of olive oil and, of course, good wine, it offers plenty of inspiration for any food lover. There is also solid science pointing to its health benefits: It is well established that the diet lowers bad cholesterol and can dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease, and there is emerging evidence that it may protect brain function as we age, among other benefits.

But as I experienced on a family vacation that took us from Rome to Provence to Barcelona this spring, the culinary and health attributes of the Mediterranean diet go beyond what is traditionally eaten in that region — they are also about how food is eaten and approached there. From what I could see, the lifestyle around eating Mediterranean-style is as valuable as the food itself, so I brought back a few pointers to keep in mind as I settled back into my hectic post-holiday reality and to share with you. The goal is to enjoy a little more of “la dolce vita” here and be healthier for it.

Make good food a priority
One thing that really stuck with me from the trip was something our Roman guide said as he led us on a tasting journey of the city’s Testaccio section: “There is no word for ‘foodie’ in Italian. Food is central to everyone’s life here. It’s normal to care deeply about food.” Quality and taste are held to a high standard in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean. There is a great respect for the craft of food production, and although dishes are often prepared simply, excellent ingredients are valued and shortcuts that compromise quality shunned. It was an important reminder of the wisdom of moving away from low-quality, hyper-processed foods — which are often laden with unhealthy additives, sodium and sugar — in favor of top-notch ingredients, served close to their source and simply prepared.

Eat seasonally
Artichokes were just out of season when we were there, so although they were on the printed menu at a modest trattoria we went in, they were not being served. In a world where people who can afford it can get just about any ingredient any time of year, it is almost startling to hear, “No, the season’s over.” But sticking to seasonal produce connects to the previous point about excellent ingredients. Fruit and vegetables taste best at the height of their season, so get them while the getting’s good and then move on. This approach offers built-in variety, providing an array of different flavors and nutrients throughout the year, and it means eating more locally, which is better for the environment.

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