By Casey Barber, CNN
The Mediterranean diet has been an expert-recommended way of eating since it was first introduced in the 1990s, but it still holds its own with newer, trendier eating plans. And if you’re moving into plant-based eating and flexitarian eating, you might be following the Mediterranean diet already without realizing it.
“It’s lauded as one of the healthiest diets in the world,” said dietician nutritionist Michelle Dudash, author of “The Low-Carb Mediterranean Cookbook: Quick and Easy High-Protein, Low-Sugar, Healthy-Fat Recipes for Lifelong Health.”
“And it’s not an all-or-nothing set of rules,” Dudash said. “It doesn’t have to be all day; it doesn’t have to be every week.”
It’s not even a diet in the weight loss sense of the word. It’s a way of life for people in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
In addition to incorporating foods and ingredients that are local to the region, the diet takes a broader, lifestyle-based approach that also emphasizes mindfully enjoying meals with family and friends and getting up and moving throughout the day. Walking and talking with a buddy instead of running nowhere on a treadmill? That’s the Mediterranean way.
The bulk of the Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based ingredients, including fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and grains, with seafood as the main animal-based protein source.
“While meat and dairy can be part of the Mediterranean diet, it’s heavily built on plants,” Dudash said, who first experienced this way of eating by cooking alongside her Lebanese grandmother and great-grandmother as a child.
As an adult, her travels throughout the Mediterranean, to countries like Italy, France, Croatia and Monaco, expanded her palate and solidified her love for the Mediterranean lifestyle.
The whole and less-processed ingredients recommended in the Mediterranean diet naturally lend themselves to a more low-carb way of eating. By incorporating these in larger quantities than starchy foods like white bread and rice, red meat, and sugar-added foods, you can start shifting your eating habits.
If you’re trying to reduce your carbohydrate intake, introduce more plants, fiber and good fat into your diet. Or simply eat fewer processed foods, it’s simpler than you might think to make your life more Mediterranean.
Here are Dudash’s top recommendations for ingredient swaps and everyday cooking habits you can incorporate into your routine using common pantry ingredients, along with recipes to try from Dudash’s new book.
Use extra-virgin olive oil on everything
If there is one switch to make your meals more Mediterranean, it’s to make extra-virgin olive oil your go-to cooking oil. “Use it liberally! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into friends’ houses, and they have a little bottle of olive oil they only use on salads,” Dudash said.
Extra-virgin olive oil is low in saturated fat — the kind that can lead to high cholesterol — and high in monounsaturated fat — the kind that can help lower cholesterol. Polyphenols give extra-virgin olive oil its signature green-gold color and can help fight a host of diseases.
Olive oil labeled “pure” or “light” doesn’t have the same benefits as the extra-virgin kind. “That is not a healthier choice, and the name has nothing to do with calories. You’re getting the processed leftovers,” Dudash said.
She recommends that you reach for extra-virgin olive oil anywhere you’d use butter or canola oil in a recipe, not just as a finishing oil or salad dressing. In Mediterranean cooking, she noted, “Olive oil is the staple fat used in cooking and at the table, from sautéing seafood to drizzling over salads and cooked vegetables — even stirring into cake batter!”
Hummus isn’t just for snacks
Hummus has a lot going for it. The savory spread is made from fiber-rich ingredients like chickpeas and tahini. And it’s kid-friendly and pairs well with other vegetables. But Dudash thinks you need to think beyond snack time when considering hummus. “You’re dipping your carrots in it, but are you using it to its full potential? Probably not.”
Anywhere you’d typically turn to mayo, try hummus or tahini in its place. Dudash folds hummus into her tuna salad and uses tahini in Caesar dressing to give it a lush and creamy texture. She even uses hummus as a base for a Greek-inspired seven-layer dip that’s a refreshing change of pace from the usual refried bean-and-guac option.
Dudash also notes that “hummus in Middle Eastern countries isn’t served cold out of the fridge, it’s served warmed.” With this in mind, she stirs hummus into sauces and one-pan sautés to add moisture and flavor, as well as to sneak in some additional protein. She especially loves adding it to browned ground turkey for lettuce wraps.
Swap in nuts and seeds for bread
A simple way to get more plant-based protein and fiber into your meals is to replace breadcrumb fillings and toppings with nuts or seeds. “It’s an awesome way to add more plant protein to crusts, breadings or salads, and give them more texture and depth of flavor,” Dudash said.
She mixes chopped nuts with ground turkey as a stuffed pepper filling and hides almond flour in her Mediterranean meatloaf. Instead of panko, she dips cod fillets into crushed pistachios and bakes them to get a toasted crunch. Try Dudash’s recipe from from “The Low-Carb Mediterranean Cookbook” yourself.
If you’re allergic to tree nuts or want to mix things up further, Dudash suggests using quinoa. “Most people are used to seeing it in salads or a pilaf,” she said, but this high-protein seed can replace breadcrumbs or oats in favorite recipes for meatballs, burgers and more.
You can use leftover cooked quinoa or dry quinoa as a binder. Soak dry quinoa for about 15 minutes, then drain well before mixing in.
Canned goods aren’t a cop-out
There are two types of canned ingredients Dudash always keeps in her pantry: beans and tomatoes.
Though multicooker appliances like the Instant Pot have made it easier to prepare dried beans, nothing is quicker than opening a can — and there is no shame in turning to that time-saver. “They’re one of the best inventions ever,” she said.
Maximize the nutritional potential in canned beans and minimize salt intake by buying the low-sodium option whenever possible, and draining and rinsing the beans before using them in recipes.
One exception: The liquid from chickpeas, known as aquafaba, can be used as a vegan replacement for eggs. If you’re interested in baking with aquafaba, strain and save the drained chickpea liquid, then rinse the beans.
Even when fresh tomatoes are in season, it always pays to have a few cans of tomatoes, whether diced, crushed or whole, at the ready. “Canned tomatoes are essential for Mediterranean cooking and all sorts of other cuisines,” Dudash said. They are a reliable meal-building staple for soups and stews, sauces and casseroles.
Canned tomatoes also can be more powerful cancer fighters than raw. All tomatoes are high in lycopene, an antioxidant that gives them their red color and has been shown to reduce cancer risk. “When you cook or can tomatoes, the lycopene content actually increases,” Dudash said.
For more tips, sign up for Eat, But Better, CNN’s eight-part guide to eating Mediterranean-style and see how easy it can be.
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Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories