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Practically Nutritious: An occasional series

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Mediterranean diets are often misunderstood

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  • Understanding nutrition news gets confusing
  • Eating Mediterranean-style

    It’s called Mediterranean because it follows the cooking style common in Greece, Morocco, coastal Italy, Spain and southern France, particularly Provence.

    What is it: Eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains with a little bit of protein, mostly from fish, shellfish and chicken. Fat is mostly unsaturated from olive oil; salt and sugar are used sparingly. Includes moderate daily consumption of red wine.

    Resources: Oldwayspt.org. Oldways, a nonprofit nutrition education organization, is an advocate of the diet and created a Mediterranean pyramid as a diet guide in 1993.

    One healthy eating goal: To help balance your diet, aim for a fruit and vegetable at every meal.


  • Moroccan-Marinated Chicken Breasts With Wilted Onions

    From “The Clean Plates Cookbook,” by Jared Koch with Jill Silverman Hough (Running Press, $20). The breasts and onions also can be cooked on the grill.

    1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

    1 tablespoon ground coriander

    1 tablespoon ground ginger

    1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

    3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

    3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

    1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

    Fine sea salt

    4 medium-sized skinless, boneless chicken breasts

    1 medium yellow onion, halved and cut in 1/4-inch slices

    COMBINE the cinnamon, coriander, ginger, pepper, nutmeg and allspice in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Arrange the chicken on a plate and spread both sides with the spice paste. Sprinkle with salt. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

    PREHEAT oven to 450 degrees and bring chicken to room temperature.

    HEAT 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken without moving on one side until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the chicken, transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until the chicken is cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.

    REMOVE the skillet from the oven, transfer the chicken to a plate and cover loosely with foil.

    PLACE the skillet on the stove over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally and scraping up any browned bits, until the onion starts to soften, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook until onion is tender and wilted, about 7 minutes.

    ARRANGE the chicken on plates and top with the onion. Serve hot, drizzled with any juices or pan drippings.

    YIELD: 4 servings.


  • Green Olive Tapenade

    From “Betty Goes Vegan,” by Annie and Dan Shannon (Grand Central, $26.99).

    1 1/4 cups green Spanish olives, pitted

    1/4 cup marinated artichoke hearts

    2 tablespoons raw pine nuts

    2 teaspoons lemon juice

    1 tablespoon capers, drained

    2 cloves garlic, minced

    1/4 cup olive oil

    1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

    Freshly ground black pepper

    Toasted baguette slices or pita triangles

    BLEND the olives, artichoke hearts, pine nuts, lemon juice, capers, garlic and olive oil in a food processor until chunky.

    TRANSFER to a bowl and stir in the cilantro and pepper. Serve with baguette slices or pita triangles.

    YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.


  • Sauteed Shaved Asparagus

    From “Modern Mediterranean,” by Melia Marden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35).

    1 1/2 bunches (about 1 1/2 pounds) thick asparagus

    1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    Freshly ground black pepper

    2 teaspoons unsalted butter

    SNAP off the woody ends of the asparagus stalks. Using a mandolin or sharp vegetable peeler, shave the asparagus into long strips about 1/16th inch thick.

    HEAT the oil in a large saute pan about 30 seconds over medium heat. Add the asparagus in a single layer (work in batches if your pan isn’t big enough). Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring constantly, until tender but still bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the butter and remove from heat. Stir to coat and serve.

    YIELD: 4 servings.



The Mediterranean diet is on everyone’s lips. It’s always been on Elisabetta Politi’s.

Politi, director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, is a native of Italy who speaks with a lilting accent.

“I have been lecturing on the Mediterranean diet for the last 15 years,” she says. “Whether you call it the Mediterranean diet or the anti-inflammatory diet or a diet based on vegetables and fruits and whole grains, it seems that’s the diet to really help people stay healthy.”

In February, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a major clinical trial in Spain that showed the so-called Mediterranean diet, supplemented with either more olive oil or extra nuts, cut the incidence of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease by 30 percent.

While many nutritionists are pleased, they’re not surprised. They’ve been telling us for years to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, limit red meat and stick to unsaturated fats like olive oil.

“It’s like, ‘duh,’ right?” said Dr. Nancy Fey-Yensan, dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services. “It’s a plant-based diet. It treats animal protein like a condiment. And we’ve known this for a long time.”

So what is a Mediterranean diet? It generally means an eating style that is focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains with a little protein, mostly from fish, shellfish and chicken. Fat comes from olive oil. Dairy products are limited and are mostly cheese and eggs, not butter and milk. It includes red wine in moderation, with meals.

“People think it’s low-carb,” says Politi. “It is not. You eat vegetables, fruits, grains” – all of which are carbohydrates.

“There’s so much confusion. When I ask (people) what food is a carbohydrate, they think pasta, rice and potatoes – the doughy stuff.”

If you’re eating Mediterranean, “ideally, it should be based on a fruit at every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vegetables with lunch and dinner. Then fish at least twice a week.”

Now, before you run to the kitchen and pour olive oil over your cornflakes (in the words of one skeptic), consider a few cautions. First, as is true in anything involving nutrition, research is ongoing. Questions are being raised about what actually caused the beneficial effect, whether it was the diet or the extra nuts or olive oil.

For another, no one is suggesting unlimited amounts of olive oil or nuts.

“If you eat too much of a good thing and it causes weight gain, that’s not going to help,” says Politi. “If you just start thinking olive oil is great for you and every day you eat 200, 300 calories from olive oil, that is not going to help you.”

A single tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories – 18 more than a tablespoon of butter.

Fey-Yensan hopes what people take away isn’t the idea of living like you’re in a Sardinian fishing village. What she hopes you’ll remember is that it’s a good goal to focus your meals on fresh, unprocessed foods and lean forms of protein.

“Make those small changes first,” says Fey-Yensan. “ ‘Is half of my plate filled with fresh food that isn’t of animal origin?’ You’re on your way.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236
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