Local nutritionist touts diet designed to feel like a Mediterranean holiday

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

The Mediterranean diet
To live better and maybe even longer, eat like this. That’s the lesson of the Mediterranean diet, which isn’t a diet in the American sense. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Dieting gets a bad rap. Calorie counting. Small portions. Chasing the latest fad, from carb-avoidant Atkins to hunter-gatherer style with Paleo.

What if the secret to better health meant eating like you were on a seaside Mediterranean vacation?

Think fresh fish, tomatoes and olive oil. Whole grain bread. Fresh fruit. That’s the premise of the Mediterranean diet, though “diet” is something of a misnomer.

It’s a way of eating that borrows from the centuries-old practices of Mediterranean countries, such as Spain and Italy. The American diet is heavy in meats and carbohydrates; the Mediterranean diet spotlights healthier options, including healthy fats such as olive oil, according to MedLine Plus, which is produced by the National Library of Medicine.

The Mediterranean diet also incorporates:

  • Plant-based eating, with small portions of lean meat and chicken
  • Whole grains, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts and legumes
  • Naturally high-fiber foods
  • Fish and seafood
  • Simple seasoning and preparation, without heavy gravies and sauces

The Mediterranean diet does not include – or limits to small portions:

  • Red meat
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Sweets and desserts (other than fruit)

With those tradeoffs, though, come potential health benefits.

A Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to low levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s also tied to reduced risk of cardiac death, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

For residents of the Historic Triangle, where restaurants often spotlight traditional and even Colonial fare, the Mediterranean approach could be something of a reboot.

According to the 2011 Virginia Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 20 percent of Peninsula residents said they ate less than one vegetable per day; fruit consumption averaged less than two pieces per day.

Still, awareness of “good” fats — olive oil, flax seeds, nuts, seeds and avocados — is an emerging trend, according to Julie Mitchell, owner of the Nutrition and Wellness Center in Williamsburg.

Mitchell, a board-certified naturopathic doctor and certified nutritionist, advises people to avoid dairy, gluten, sugar, butter, margarine and trans fats. She steers clients toward fruits and vegetables, and guides them toward managing a higher-fiber diet if they’re not used to eating one.

“I’m a problem solver to help them figure that out,” she said in a phone interview.

Of course, the Mediterranean diet is not just about the food you eat and how you prepare it. It’s an approach that includes moderate amounts of red wine, regular exercise and the intangible benefit of enjoying meals with friends and family.

“We need to nurture ourselves,” said Mitchell.

Here are some tips, courtesy of Chesterfield County, for making your diet more Mediterranean:

  • Add seeds or nuts to a salad, not cheese.
  • Cook with olive oil or canola oil, not butter.
  • Serve raw vegetables with vinaigrette or hummus, not mayonnaise-based dips or dips made from sour cream.
  • Season food with herbs and spices, not salt.
  • Dip bread in olive oil instead of spreading it with butter.

Before you start any diet or fitness regimen, you should first consult your doctor.

Read more stories about staying healthy in WYDaily’s Health Section