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Embrace Mediterranean diet

By Suzanne Havala Hobbs

In the scientific quest to define a dietary gold standard, score one more for the merits of a plant-based diet.

A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine found people at high risk for coronary artery disease could reduce their risks of stroke, heart attack and death from coronary artery disease by 30 percent by eating a diet rich in beans, vegetables, fruits, fish and olive oil. Wine with meals was OK, too.

I last wrote a column about the Mediterranean diet in 2003 after results of a large-scale Harvard study, published in the same journal, also found lower death rates among people who consistently ate a Mediterranean style diet. The latest study used a particularly rigorous design and, despite some criticisms, the findings add to the larger body of evidence supporting the health advantages of a largely plant-based eating style.

The Mediterranean diet is steeped in cultural traditions dating back to ancient times and covering a wide area including the coastal Mediterranean, Portugal, southern Spain, France, Turkey, Greece, western Lebanon and Israel and northern Africa. Recipes vary across these countries but the staple ingredients emphasize fresh produce supplemented with seafood, seeds and nuts, olive oil, wine, and small amounts of dairy products.

The food is colorful, fresh, flavorful and generally light and filling. If you’re already familiar with this way of eating, the latest study findings may be the reminder you need to fix fattoush salad or roasted eggplant with couscous more often.

If you’re new to foods from this region, get acquainted with some simple Mediterranean dishes that most people would enjoy. Good starter foods:

• Lentil soup. I like to add bits of cooked carrot or spinach to mine.

• Hummus. Buy it at most supermarkets, but this bean dip is super-easy to make at home in a blender or food processor, too. Basic ingredients are chickpeas, olive oil, sesame paste, garlic and lemon juice.

• Spinach salad with sliced red onions, chopped green peppers, tomatoes, black olives, vinaigrette dressing and a little feta cheese crumbled over the top.

• Crusty, artisan breads with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cracked black pepper for dipping.

Then don’t stop there. Take the full tour.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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