Last week, I presented a challenge for you to think about: are you feeding your body in a way that promotes health and wellness, or disease? Specifically, I challenged the way we eat here in America.
No matter what age you are today, it’s crucial to understand that the choices you make with your body today will significantly impact how well it will work when you are in your nineties and can determine whether you are still living at that age.
I’m trying to give you a toolkit for longevity.
For all of our advancements as a nation, the Standard American Diet is contributing more to disease and obesity than to wellness. In that regard, we have much to learn from our neighbors in other parts of the world.
Ancient Wisdom In The Modern World
One of the guiding principles of my practice is that we can draw wisdom for our health from the simple lifestyles of our ancestors. They worked outside, ate real plants and animals, stayed connected to the earth, and slept when it was dark outside. Their lives were not cluttered with noise, polluted air, or food from a test tube.
Here in America, we’ve developed a processed, preserved, pretend food supply that leaves us listless and sickly. Compare that to the daily diet of the people around the Mediterranean Sea: for five thousand years, people from Damascus to Monaco have been eating a delicious, diverse, and nutrient-rich diet that not only keeps them strong and healthy but tastes great, too.
People in that area are strong and vibrant with a healthy glow (and a gorgeous tan!). Naturally, most nutritionists and writers refer to it as the “Mediterranean Diet.” We’ve talked about it here before.
If you visit there, you will not see a lot of obese people. You won’t see many people on multiple medications for diabetes, hypertension, or leaky gut. Why? Their diet isn’t quietly killing them like the Standard American Diet. CNN ran a report in July 2017 that showed how following the Mediterranean Diet could lower your risk of dementia by a third.
Let’s take a look at that food wisdom and see what we can learn from it.
I know I say this all the time, but if a food comes from the earth, your body will draw nourishment from it; but if it comes from a chemistry lab, your body will treat it like a poison. Now, not all poisons result in death—some will cause you to swell up, itch, or stop breathing—but it’s still poison. American food—especially pre-packaged “convenience” food—is loaded with chemicals to extend their shelf life, improve the flavor, and make them addictive. Monosodium glutamate and aspartame are the usual suspects here.
The Mediterranean Diet is made up of foods to which Aristotle would have had access when he was alive. He didn’t (to my knowledge) eat potato chips and boxed cookies. They didn’t exist. He ate garden-grown vegetables, nuts and beans, and lots of fish. He probably also ate the occasional bull or goat, and he cooked with olive oil.
The Foundation Is Vegetables
Fresh or cooked, the Mediterranean Diet is loaded with vegetables. Every meal is a flash of bright colors – just as beautiful as it is delicious. Fresh herbs and spices are carefully cultivated to bring out the best flavors. Foods on this diet are spicy and aromatic, teasing your senses and luring you in. I’m starting to sound like a tourism brochure. Leafy greens make a great foundation for salad, but just about any non-starchy vegetable has a place at the table. Look for familiar favorites like artichoke, eggplant, celery, mushrooms, cabbage, onions, spinach, and carrots. If you want to expand your vocabulary, add some chicory, collard greens, fennel, kale, leeks, okra, rutabaga, and mustard greens. Add flavor with dashes of citrus fruits, scallions, and radishes.
Fruits, But Not Too Much
Speaking of citrus, the Mediterranean Diet includes plenty of lemons and limes, lots of fresh berries, apricots, dates, figs, grapes, and melons, among other fruits. In terms of quantity, though, they are not as abundant as veggies. One of the biggest benefits of the diet is how it helps your body regulate sugar. Even though natural fruit-based sugars are better than granulated sugars and sweeteners, too much is still too much. To get the full benefits of this diet, you have to manage your intake of all types of sugar.
Fat is one of the most misunderstood health issues in America, due to a deliberate misinformation campaign that began in the 1950s with Ancel Keys’ “Seven Countries Study,” which demonized all fats as killers. The devastating effects of this campaign will only be fully understood when we get to Heaven. Millions of people have died preventable and horrible deaths because they were given false information about fat. Monounsaturated fat and saturated fat are not only healthy, they are critical for optimal brain and cardiovascular health.
Yes, you read that right. Your brain is made of fat and water.
One of the big things that the Mediterranean Diet does right is how it incorporates generous amounts of omega-3-rich fats, like fish oil, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocados. Notice that I didn’t mention corn, soybean, or canola oil. Those oils are poisonous; avoid them.
Nuts, seeds, and olives not only add a rich flavor to most meals, they also add healthy amounts of these good fats, so the meals are more satisfying, even in smaller portions.
The Right Grains
The American diet is overloaded with carbs, most of which lack nutrients and wreak havoc on your blood sugar. While I think the Mediterranean Diet over-emphasizes grains to some extent, I think there is room for whole grains in most people’s diets. Sprouted or fermented grains are great for easier digestion and nutrient absorption. Artisan breads like sourdough are a good choice for most people. If you’re having issues with blood sugar crashes, mood swings or gluten intolerance, this is the first place to cut back.
One thing to think about when you see how much grain is included in the Mediterranean Diet: bread is different in the Mediterranean Basin. Their bread is fuller, nuttier, with extra fiber and hearty flavor, not the dried paste that we call bread here. Plus, they don’t spray their crops with pesticides to speed up the harvest process like we do here, so their bread products aren’t laced with the same levels of toxins that ours are.
A Little Meat
Meat is a part of the diet, but in moderation – maybe toss an envelope-sized piece of sautéed chicken or steak on a green salad bed. Fish is a key component of the diet. Enjoy herring, tuna, or salmon (even sardines!) a couple of times a week. These fish are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and they taste great served Med style!
With a climate similar to South Florida, the Mediterranean basin gets hot for much of the year, so hydration is critical. The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes water and a little wine and leaves out sugars and milk (you can get your daily dairy allotment from a cup of yogurt or a hunk of flavorful cheese). But don’t go without water. One measure I like to keep in mind is “half your weight in ounces of water.” So, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should be drinking 90 ounces of water PER DAY.
One Other Thing
Eating right is important, but it’s not the whole story. One thing I really like about the Mediterranean Diet is that it’s not just a food plan; it’s a lifestyle. The cultures of the Mediterranean have one major thing in common: people are often outdoors, keeping active, eating in social groups, playing, dancing, and working together. In a way, eating a healthy Mediterranean-style dish alone in your office misses the point as much as eating fresh vegetables topped with Cheez-Whiz. Fresh air, wine, and social gatherings are just as much part of the diet as fresh vegetables. In that way, it’s a complete package. Maybe that’s why it has survived for 5,000 years when so many other diets have disappeared.
There is much more I could say about the Mediterranean Diet, but I want to leave room for my next Fundamental Foods and Friends guest, Juliana Sagitta of Mediterranean Meals. She’ll be speaking on Thursday, March 8, starting at 6:15 p.m. This is going to be a great night and an amazing meal, so don’t miss out.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas