By Leslie Shallcross
Just knowing that this is National Nutrition Month may nudge us a tiny bit closer toward better food habits. Most of us can sort the less healthy from the more healthy, but what should we aim for to be certain that we are eating well?
The 2015 U.S. dietary guidelines plus more recent studies should give all of us a few things to strive for if we are in the market for a health-promoting food plan. As a reformed vegetarian now eating meat and known to have an affection for bacon, I hate to say it, but a “plant-based” diet is likely to be yours and my best bet for better health. This is not really new; by another name, this is the “Mediterranean diet.” It’s low in animal protein, has very little sugar, and the saturated fat from animals and plants is replaced with unsaturated fats like olive oil, safflower or canola oil.
Indeed, claims of benefit from the Mediterranean diet multiply weekly – well, it seems like it anyway. And the pluses are pretty great — following this pattern might help you avoid heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies conclude that the Mediterranean eating pattern, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil, may help the brain stay sharp into old age and a recent study in 6,000 individuals showed reduced overall frailty in seniors.
The Mediterranean diet became widely known for the first time in the 1970s from the “Seven Countries Study,” conducted by researcher Ancel Keys. At the time of his early research, certain areas of the Mediterranean had the lowest recorded rates of chronic diseases and the highest adult life expectancy in the world. Since then, there have many indications that adoption of a Mediterranean diet is associated with decreased chronic disease and all-cause mortality.
So what does the Mediterranean diet look like in more detail and what can you choose to work on during National Nutrition Month?
Most food and calories should come from high fiber, colorful plant sources, including fruits and vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. To the extent possible, food should be fresh, locally grown and homemade, which may maximize the health-promoting micronutrient and antioxidant content of these foods. This means fewer highly processed foods like chips, breakfast cereals, cookies, etc., and fewer pre-prepared convenience foods.
Olive oil is the principal fat, used in many cases as we would use butter or margarine in baking. Total dietary fat may range from less than 25 percent (about 4 tablespoons if you are eating 2,000 calories a day) to over 35 percent of calories, but saturated fats account for no more than 7 to 8 percent (1 1/3 tablespoons) of calories. Canola oil, which contains similar fats to olive oil, and other oils like sunflower or safflower are good choices to replace butter or margarine.
The Mediterranean pattern includes one to two servings daily of cheese and yogurt (ask your doctor if you should take more calcium).
Choose healthy protein sources such as fish or chicken several times per week and use plant protein sources in place of animal protein at most meals — dried beans, nuts and tofu. Consume red meat, cured meats and cold cuts less than once per week. Eggs are limited to zero to four per week, including those used in cooking and baking.
Sweet treats containing significant amounts of sugar or honey and saturated fat are eaten only a few times per week or less. If you have dessert, make it a dried, frozen or fresh fruit.
Water should be the beverage of choice but unsweetened coffee and tea are okay. Keep juice consumption to no more than 1 small cup per day.
The Mediterranean eating pattern relies on herbs, lemon juice, citrus peel, vinegar and wine for flavoring. You don’t have to cut salt out altogether but keep added salt to a minimum. If you give up most pre-processed foods and make most of your meals at home, you will have made great headway in reducing your salt intake.
To see even more details, check out the Harvard University Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid at http://bit.ly/2GQNn40.
Leslie Shallcross is the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.