The magic of the Mediterranean diet is that it manages to satisfy chefs and nutritionists at once. With its bounty of vegetables and fruit; garlic and herb seasonings; beans, nuts, and ancient grains; 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 several years back, 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 in to my hectic post-vacation 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 while dishes are often prepared simply, excellent ingredients are valued and shortcuts that compromise quality shunned. My time there and the words of the guide were 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, close to their source and simply prepared.
Artichokes were just out of season when we were there, so although they were on the printed menu at a modest trattoria we walked in to, they were not serving them. In a world where we 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, which means you get an array of different flavors and nutrients throughout the year and it means eating more locally, which is better for the environment.
With only one afternoon to spend Aix-en-Provence we were told that if we sat down at a restaurant for lunch, even a simple bistro, not to expect the in-and-out service we are used to in the states. In the Mediterranean a meal is a thing to slow down for, to be savored. There is ritual around it, and a value not only in the food but in the community of eating it together. We opted for a sit-down lunch, which, as promised, took a couple of hours, and we relished every minute of it. It was not only memorably delicious, it was a welcomed break from chasing around and we were able to truly connect with each other and observe the comings and goings of the residents from the view from our outdoor table.
There is no chance of a languorous two hour lunch for me, or most of us, on a regular workday, but it’s a reminder of the value of sitting down at a table, unplugging from electronics and slowing down, if even just a little, to enjoy your food and the company you are with. That small step is certainly possible on a daily basis and it has real benefits. Eating more mindfully like that can help us consume less while enjoying our food more, and eating together can help foster stronger relationships.
Consider How Food Makes You Feel
Another thing that struck me on this journey was how much attention to good digestion was integrally woven into the Mediterranean way of eating. It is the rationale I was given for many of the traditional eating patterns, like having salad after the entrée, cheese at the end of a meal, and never having a big pizza for lunch or a cappuccino after noon, for example (espresso is OK though, apparently). I have not seen any research on how these patterns impact digestion, but whether or not the reasons are valid is beside the point. The take-home is the value of making decisions based on how a food or meal pattern makes you feel after you have eaten. That kind of awareness, which goes hand-in-hand with slowing down and savoring your food, can go a long way toward preventing overeating, and help keep you feeling good in the short and long run.