The magic of the Mediterranean diet is that it manages to satisfy both chefs and nutritionists. With its bounty of vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains, its garlic and herb seasonings, its luxurious use of olive oil and, of course, good wine, it offers plenty of inspiration for any food lover. There is also solid science pointing to its health benefits: It is well established that the diet lowers bad cholesterol and can dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease, and there is emerging evidence that it may protect brain function as we age, among other benefits.
But as I experienced on a family vacation that took us from Rome to Provence to Barcelona this spring, the culinary and health attributes of the Mediterranean diet go beyond what is traditionally eaten in that region — they are also about how food is eaten and approached there. From what I could see, the lifestyle around eating Mediterranean-style is as valuable as the food itself, so I brought back a few pointers to keep in mind as I settled back into my hectic post-holiday reality and to share with you. The goal is to enjoy a little more of “la dolce vita” here and be healthier for it.
One thing that really stuck with me from the trip was something our Roman guide said as he led us on a tasting journey of the city’s Testaccio section: “There is no word for ‘foodie’ in Italian. Food is central to everyone’s life here. It’s normal to care deeply about food.” Quality and taste are held to a high standard in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean. There is a great respect for the craft of food production, and although dishes are often prepared simply, excellent ingredients are valued and shortcuts that compromise quality shunned. It was an important reminder of the wisdom of moving away from low-quality, hyper-processed foods — which are often laden with unhealthy additives, sodium and sugar — in favor of top-notch ingredients, served close to their source and simply prepared.
Artichokes were just out of season when we were there, so although they were on the printed menu at a modest trattoria we went in, they were not being served. In a world where people who can afford it can get just about any ingredient any time of year, it is almost startling to hear, “No, the season’s over.” But sticking to seasonal produce connects to the previous point about excellent ingredients. Fruit and vegetables taste best at the height of their season, so get them while the getting’s good and then move on. This approach offers built-in variety, providing an array of different flavors and nutrients throughout the year, and it means eating more locally, which is better for the environment.
With only one afternoon to spend in Aix-en-Provence, we were told that if we sat down at a restaurant for lunch, even at a simple bistro, not to expect the in-and-out service we are used to in the States. In the Mediterranean, a meal is generally a thing to slow down for, to be savored. Not only is the food valued, so are the rituals and the communal pleasure of eating it together. We opted for a sit-down lunch, which, as promised, took a couple of hours, and we relished every minute of it. It was not only memorably delicious but also a welcome break from chasing around; we were able to truly connect with each other and observe, from our outdoor table, the life of the people around us.
Most of us have no chance of a languorous two-hour lunch on a regular workday, but we can sit down, unplug the electronics and slow down, if even just a little, to enjoy the food and the company. Eating more mindfully like that can help us consume less while enjoying it more, and eating together can foster stronger relationships.
Another thing that struck me on this journey was how much attention to good digestion was integrally woven into the Mediterranean way of eating. It is the rationale I was given for many of the traditional eating patterns — serving salad after the entree, having cheese at the end of a meal instead of beforehand and never having a big pizza for lunch or a cappuccino after noon (apparently, espresso is okay, though). I have not seen any research on how these patterns impact digestion, but whether the reasons are valid is beside the point. The takeaway is the value of making decisions based on how a food or meal pattern makes you feel after you have eaten. That kind of awareness, which goes hand in hand with slowing down and savoring your food, can go a long way toward preventing overeating and help keep you feeling good in the short and long run.