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The ABCs Of The Mediterranean Diet Save Lives In A New Way

You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Thumbs up yet again for the Mediterranean diet. Those tireless researchers in Spain who brought us the good news a year ago about positive effects on heart disease and stroke from following a Mediterranean-style diet have added to their pitch: It now looks as though the Med diet can also be beneficial against diabetes, especially among older adults at high risk for heart disease. This is all part of the same large-scale study of the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease that has been ongoing among several different medical centers in Spain.

Experts, including the Joslin Diabetes Center and the American Heart Association, tell us there’s a clear relationship between diabetes and heart disease. Heart disease and stroke are the main causes of death and disability among diabetics; furthermore, adults with Type 2 diabetes are two to four times more likely to suffer heart disease or stroke than adults without it. So preventing heart disease could begin with preventing Type 2 diabetes.

The details of the latest study-within-a-study are in the January 2014 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 160, No. 1. The conclusion is already drawing attention from medical and public health establishments. Most significant are the ages of the 3,500 participants (between 55 and 80) and the length of the study (more than four years), indicating, in the words of the lead author of the study, Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado, that “it’s never too late to switch.” Even for older adults with several markers for a strong risk of heart disease, even without calorie restriction, even without increasing exercise, changing to a Mediterranean-style diet can bring positive results. (And if you do cut calories and bump up the exercise, so much the better.)

And it’s not just diabetes. The Mediterranean diet is also known to be protective against other catastrophic illnesses — heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure (hypertension), certain cancers and neurological decline. Beyond that, the evidence is clear that people who follow a Mediterranean type of diet often not only live longer but have a healthier old age.

Mediterranean diet is simple, easy, inexpensive

So what is this Mediterranean diet that we keep hearing so much about?

I’ve been fortunate for much of my adult life to live, work, cook and raise a family in several Mediterranean countries, and I’ve spent much of the past 20 years studying the diet from that perspective — that is, not of a scientist, a nutritionist or a chef, but simply a person who wants to provide herself, family and friends with good, healthy food and to grow old gradually but gracefully with most systems still in place.

It’s puzzling to me why more people don’t seem able to make the relatively effortless and uncomplicated switch to a Mediterranean way of cooking and eating. After all, it’s simple, it’s easy, it’s not expensive. It requires no ingredients that aren’t readily available in any well-stocked supermarket and no techniques for which a culinary degree is necessary. Anyone who knows how to boil water or fry an egg, anyone who has access to a good supermarket, anyone who’s willing to buy into the idea that investing a bit of time in preparing food is an investment with terrific payoffs in terms of satisfaction as well as good health — anyone like that ought to be able to do this.

If you’re timid, here are a few principles to start you off:

  • Increase the amount of vegetables you consume, especially fresh, seasonal vegetables like, right now, spicy greens, squashes and root vegetables.
  • Replace most of the red meat (beef, pork, lamb) in your diet with fish and legumes — eat fish three times a week, beans at least twice. (That includes lentils, chickpeas, fava, black beans, borlotti and many others — just Google “legumes” for a look at this astonishingly broad category.)
  • Substitute extra virgin olive oil for the other fats you now consume, whether butter or vegetable oils. Use it as a garnish, but use it also for cooking — it is simply not true that you can’t cook with extra virgin.

And here’s a quick and easy recipe, incorporating olive oil and lots of vegetables, to get you on the road to a healthy Mediterranean diet and a more delicious way to eat. Serve this on top of a brown rice pilaf topped with chopped almonds, maybe accompanied by a salad of greens and avocados, and you’ll have a complete meal that is undeniably good-tasting and even more undeniably good for you too:

A Medley of Roasted Winter Vegetables

You may use any of a number of different winter vegetables, mostly roots, for the dish, but count on at least a pound plus a little more for each person, not including garnishes like chili peppers and chopped herbs. To make 4½ pounds of vegetables, I assembled 2 medium beets, 1 smallish celery root, 1 medium sweet potato, 5 small carrots, 2 small white turnips, 2 fat leeks and 6 small potatoes.

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients     

4½ pounds assorted vegetables

2 or 3 garlic cloves

2 celery ribs

2 fresh green chili peppers

Half a medium fresh red sweet (bell) pepper

About ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of red chili flakes, if desired

Juice of half a lemon

About ¼ cup minced fresh green herbs (flat-leaf parsley and basil, thyme, rosemary or chives)

Directions

1. Set the oven on 400 F.

2. Prepare the vegetables, peeling and trimming them, then cutting them into regular cubes or chunks, not more than 1 to 1½ inches on a side. Coarsely chop the garlic. If using beets, keep them separate from the other vegetables so they don’t bleed their deep, ruddy color into the paler roots. If using leeks, trim, wash and slice about ½-inch thick and set aside. Slice the celery ½-inch thick and set aside. Trim the peppers, sliver lengthwise and set aside.

3. Bring a tea kettle of water to a boil.

4. Combine all the vegetables except the beets, leeks, celery and peppers. In an oven dish large enough to hold everything, toss the vegetables with ¼ cup of oil and the salt and pepper. Add a pinch of red chili flakes if you wish. Stir in the lemon juice and add boiling water to come halfway up the vegetables.

5. In a separate, smaller oven dish, toss the beet chunks with the remaining olive oil plus salt and pepper. (No need to add lemon juice or boiling water.)

6. Set the two dishes in the preheated oven and let them roast, uncovered, for about 25 minutes or until the vegetable chunks are tender all the way through.

7. Remove both dishes from the oven. Add the sliced leeks and celery, along with the slivered peppers, to the vegetable medley and stir everything together so the browned vegetables on top of the dish are mixed in and the paler ones on the bottom are brought to the top. Return the dish to the oven for an additional 15 minutes of roasting.

8. When the main vegetable dish is done, remove and spoon the beets, with some of their juices, into the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve immediately. Note that this is also a dish that does not have to be served piping hot from the oven. Many people prefer it at room temperature or a little warmer.

Variations: You could add a cup or two of cooked beans or chickpeas (garbanzos) to the vegetables after they’ve finished roasting; you could also add a handful of small cremini mushroom caps along with the leeks and celery to the final roasting. If you have leftovers, purée them in a blender or food processor with some chicken or vegetable stock and reheat to make an old-fashioned but deeply satisfying classic French potage bonne femme.

Top photo: You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

3 COMMENTS
  • Julia dells Croce 1·31·14

    My doctor was just telling me this yesterday. And for high cholesterol he insists of 5 cups cooked green every day. Right, he’s not your usual doctor!

  • barbara lauterbach 2·4·14

    wonderful piece, Nancy. I’m able to do the “Diet” even in snowbound New Hampshire.
    Julia, your Dr. is a find!

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