Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is known to lower disease risk. Elizabeth Somer, dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, just returned from a visit to Italy and is here to explain why six of the common foods eaten in that region are so good for us.

1) Tomatoes
Tomatoes are a great source of nutrients, from vitamins A and C to fiber and potassium. They also are the primary source of lycopene in the Italian diet, a phytonutrient that lowers heart disease risk by up to 50%. Lycopene also lowers risks for all sorts of cancers, especially cancers of the prostate, cervix, skin, bladder, breast, lung and digestive tract. Eating a lot of lycopene-rich foods also might help protect skin from sun damage. The Italian diet averages about 10 milligrams or more of lycopene a day, that’s the equivalent of about a ½ cup of tomato sauce daily. The average American gets only 3.6 milligrams, or slightly more than a third of that. Make sure you choose deep-red tomatoes (Italians buy their produce from local venders and purchase them on a daily basis), since they have more lycopene than pale ones or yellow or green tomatoes. Vine-ripened tomatoes have more than those picked green and allowed to ripen later. And, those grown outdoors in the summer have more lycopene than those grown in greenhouses.

2) Olive Oil
You need a little fat along with the tomato to help boost absorption of lycopene. Italians use almost exclusively olive oil. Olive oil has the highest monounsaturated fat content of any oil, 77% compared to 62% in canola oil and 25% in corn oil. That fat has been shown to lower heart disease risk, while not increasing risk for other diseases (polyunsaturated fats in corn or soy oil are linked to higher rates of cancer.)  These fats lower total cholesterol and the “bad” cholesterol called LDLs, while holding constant or even raising the good cholesterol, called HDLs, thus lowering heart-disease risk.  In addition, the mono-unsaturated fats also protect LDLs from damaging compounds called free radicals that otherwise make them sticky and more prone to clog arteries. They also reduce blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke, and they possibly lower the inflammation in the arteries associated with heart-disease risk. In fact, following the Mediterranean-style diet that includes the monounsaturated fat, olive oil, can lower heart disease risk by up to 70%! Olive oil also is an excellent source of compounds with strange names like polyphenols and squalenes, that are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which protect tissues from damage.
 Know your olive oils: Like wine, olive oil varies in quality, character, and price. The grade is determined by the International Olive Oil Council and is categorized by taste, color, and the amount of acid (the more acid, the more bitter the taste and the lower the grade). The flavor depends on the olives used (more than 50 different varieties), ripeness, climate and soil where grown, and methods used to extract and refine the oil. 
  Extra-Virgin olive oil: is the most expensive. It is the end result of cold-pressing the olives just once. It has the least amount of acid, and is a dark yellow to green oil with a fragrant, full-bodied taste. You will even find people describe the various flavors as fruity, rustic, peppery, flowery, full-bodied, earthy, and of course olivey. Extra-virgin is richest in the antioxidants and polyphenols. It’s best used straight from the bottle, drizzled over cooked vegetables or salads.
  Virgin olive oil: is slightly higher in acid content and is not as flavorful or as deep in color. It contains some of the antioxidants found in extra virgin, but not as many because they are lost in the filtering process. This oil often has some extra-virgin oil added back to give it flavor.
  Olive oil: this has even more acids and is obtained through chemical extraction, rather than pressing. It is less flavorful and contains fewer antioxidants.
  Light olive oil: This is a tricky one. In most cases, when a food label says “light” it means the food has half the fat or sodium and 2/3 the calories. Not with olive oil. Light only refers to color, not calories. It is sold only in the U.S. to accommodate our preference for colorless, flavorless oils, such as corn and soy oils. This oil is very refined, contains few of the characteristics of olive oil and almost none of the antioxidants. 
 3) Garlic
 The Italian diet is loaded with garlic. Garlic helps prevent and treat numerous conditions, including infections, heart disease, and cancer, as well as in stimulating the immune system.  It is the wealth of sulfur-containing compounds in garlic that have potent antibacterial effects, destroying germs' ability to grow and reproduce, in much the same way that penicillin fights infections. Fresh garlic also is helpful in the treatment of fungal infections, including urethritis, athlete's foot, vaginitis, and candida albicans (yeast infections). Garlic even might help combat viruses, something no man-made drug is able to do.  
  Garlic also might help in the prevention of heart disease. Compounds in garlic decrease blood cholesterol levels by as much as 12 percent. Fresh garlic also raise HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol), reduce cholesterol manufacture in the liver, and reduce the stickiness of blood cell fragments called platelets, which in turn reduces blood clotting and artery clogging. The more garlic consumed, the greater the benefit to the heart.  
  Garlic also might inhibit the development  of abnormal cells, slow the progression of established cancer cells (including cancers of the mouth, digestive tract, breast, liver, and skin), and stimulate the immune system. Garlic might do more than fend off disease; it may lengthen your years. Preliminary evidence shows that garlic extends the lifespan of cells in culture and has some ". . . youth preserving, anti-ageing, and beneficial effects on human [immune cells]," according to researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark. 
  So how much garlic is enough?  You need at least one to two cloves a day. This amount of garlic added to sauces on pasta, stews, soups, casseroles, or baked chicken (to name only a few possibilities), adds flavor to your diet and could provide natural health insurance. Whether more is better remains questionable, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. 
 4) Al Dente Pasta
 Slightly undercooked pasta takes longer to chew, so it is more satisfying and filling that over-cooked pasta. It also enters the bloodstream slowly, so does not spike blood sugar levels and has a low glycemic index score. In other words, it is less likely to contribute to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease compared to processed and/or overcooked pasta. 
 5) Seafood
 Seafood is on every menu in Italy, and is the only natural source of the omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA. These fats significantly lower the risks for heart disease, cancer, cataracts, depression, dementia, and possibly arthritis, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions. You need at least two servings of fatty fish a week, or the daily equivalent of 1,000mg of a combination of EPA and DHA, with no less than 220mg of DHA daily. 
 6) Lemons
 I spent most of the time in Italy on the Amalfi Coast, where lemons reign supreme. Citrus fruits lower heart disease and cancer, are anti-inflammatory, and curb colon cancer risk. They are rich in vitamin C and potassium, as well as phytonutrients, such as terpenes and flavonoids. Vitamin C alone lowers the risk for cancers of the pancreas, breast, colon, stomach, and cervix. This vitamin also is important in maintaining the underlying structures of the skin, such as collagen, which might explain why Italians (especially those Romans!) Are so darn gorgeous!!!!  Lemon peel also is loaded with disease-fighting compounds. 


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