Originally Published: 02 JAN 24 09:00 ET
Updated: 02 JAN 24 10:04 ET
By Sandee LaMotte, CNN
Editor’s note: Not sure how to establish a habit? Try out behavioral scientist Katy Milkman’s five strategies for nailing your New Year’s resolutions.
(CNN) — In much of the sunny Mediterranean, mealtime is a means to an end. The food, while freshly prepared and delicious, is secondary to the main event — a gathering of friends and family, where boisterous talk about the events of the day is often mixed with loud and infectious laughter.
This sense of community is the cornerstone of the award-winning Mediterranean diet, experts say. Add daily walks and meals with little red meat or sweets and a focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and you have a style of eating that nutritionists have labeled “best diet” six years in a row.
“Even though it’s called the Mediterranean diet, it’s not really a diet,” Atlanta registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told CNN in an earlier interview. “It doesn’t tell you what to eat and not eat. It’s a lifestyle that encourages consuming all food groups but gives more weight to those which have the most health benefits.”
So why not ditch your thoughts of a diet for 2024, and start treating food as part of healthy lifestyle instead? Sign up for CNN’s Eat, But Better: Mediterranean Style newsletter, an eight-part series that guides you in this delicious, expert-backed meal plan that’s good for your health.
Here are five tips from that series to jump-start your new outlook on healthy eating.
Whole grains are easy
One of the easiest steps to take when starting the Mediterranean diet, experts say, is to replace refined grains with whole grains. Choose whole wheat bread and pasta and replace white rice with brown or wild rice.
Consider “ancient grains.” Quinoa, amaranth, millet, farro, spelt, Kamut (a wheat grain said to be discovered in an Egyptian tomb) and teff (an Ethiopian grain about the size of a poppy seed) are some good choices. Each has a different taste and texture, so try out one a month until you find your favorite.
Prioritize a different protein
To maximize the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, push meat to the side. Varied sources of protein are key — consider lentils, canned beans and chickpeas instead.
An easy way to start, Al Bochi says, is to cook one meal each week based on beans, whole grains and vegetables, using herbs and spices to add punch. When one night a week is a breeze, add two, and build your meals without meat from there.
Make it fishy
Two servings a week of fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and albacore tuna are a must on the Mediterranean diet due to their high content of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a key to lowering your risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association suggests eating a wide variety of seafood to minimize any adverse effects from mercury and other contaminants. Focus on shrimp, salmon, pollock, canned light tuna and catfish, which tend to have the lowest levels of mercury, and reduce consumption of swordfish, shark, mackerel and tilefish, which have the highest levels.
In the Mediterranean, sugary sweets are luxuries reserved for weddings and other special occasions. “Eating fruit that is in season is the dessert of choice in the Mediterranean region,” Al Bochi said, “rather than our typical pastries, cookies and cakes.”
If you tire of eating raw fresh fruit, get creative. Poach pears in pomegranate juice with a bit of honey, then reduce the sauce and serve over Greek yogurt. Grill pineapple or other fruits and drizzle with honey. Make a sorbet out of fruit, including avocado (it’s really a fruit). Stuff a fig or date with goat cheese and sprinkle on a few nuts. Create a brown rice apple crisp or even a whole wheat fruit tart.
Add joyful movement and socialize
Remember, eating the Mediterranean way isn’t all about food. Being mindful at meals, socializing and getting fresh air and exercise are also key parts of this new way of living.
“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family,” registered dietitian Kelly LeBlanc, vice president of nutrition programming for Oldways, a nonprofit nutrition organization dedicated preserving traditional diets based on African, Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean heritages.
“Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways,” she said.
Nutritionists such as Al Bochi encourage each meal to be at least 20 minutes long.
“I understand that can be hard for a lot of people to implement but start small,” she said. “Turn off the TV, put away the cell phone, focus on meaningful conversations, chew slowly and pause between bites. That could be the start to your mindful eating journey.”
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**This image is for use with this specific article only** A serving of fish such as salmon can be key to lowering the risk for heart disease due to its high content of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
02 Jan 24