So how do you go about changing over to a more Mediterranean-style diet? In a word: gradually. Slow changes to your lifestyle are more likely to last, so don’t expect to upgrade your eating plan overnight.
To get your eating habits closer to where you want them to be, start with these six steps:
1. Switch your oil. It’s the easiest change. Buy a good extra-virgin olive oil and start using it in the kitchen—to make salad dressings, to roast vegetables, for sautéing. Use a light hand though, since every tablespoon of oil—even healthy ones like olive oil—contains 120 calories.
2. Add one fish meal a week. With the prominence of gefilte fish in our diets, most of us probably aren’t hitting the American Heart Association’s recommended two servings of fatty fish per week. According to an article in the Atlantic, Americans ate just fifteen pounds of seafood per person in 2011, while we ate almost 200 pounds of other proteins (eggs, meat and poultry). The good news: canned tuna and salmon count.
3. Go meatless one night a week. You could technically fulfill this by eating macaroni and cheese, but challenge yourself to make it a dinner in which vegetables are the star. Try a vegetarian protein source like beans, tofu or seitan—they’re much less expensive than poultry and meat, so if nothing else, your wallet will thank you. Treat yourself to a vegetarian or vegan cookbook for new ideas, or simply browse recipes on the Internet. I especially like reading comments on recipes posted online—you can get great tips to help you prepare the dish or interesting modifications that might improve it.
4. Snack on nuts. Who doesn’t love nuts? Go with raw or dry-roasted—nothing coated with sugar or honey. The trick is to keep portions down, unless you are trying to gain weight; it’s very easy to overdo calories with nuts. (For example, an ounce of almonds contains about 165 calories.) Premeasured 1-ounce packages or 100-calorie packs are perfect. They’re nonperishable, so keep them on hand in your workbag or purse for a pick-me-up.
5. Make salads count. Limp lettuce greens as a base for your deli meat are better than no lettuce leaves, but they don’t offer much in the way of nutrients and those precious antioxidants. Bulk up your salads with at least three different kinds of vegetables; only then consider other add-ins.
6. Stop being afraid of fat. The “low-fat” craze thirty years ago didn’t remedy the obesity crisis; in fact, some blame it for contributing to weight gain. Fat is important for a food’s flavor and satiety value; when it’s taken out, many people end up eating more calories in order to feel full. Plus, fats offer other benefits, such as allowing you to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and comprising an integral part of every cell membrane in your body. You do need to practice moderation and selectivity, picking the “good” ones that promote health (e.g., avocados, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, et cetera). But there is certainly no need to feel guilty for eating fat!
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer with a private nutrition practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.