The Best Non-Diet Diet

Mediterranean diet: Fill your plate with a helping of history

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Zone Diet? Atkin's Diet? Mediterranean Diet? Which one doesn't belong in this group? In my opinion, the Mediterranean Diet should have never even been called a diet; it's a lifestyle. It's not as if the Mediterraneans sat around a table thousands of years ago and said, "Hey, let's create a diet." Instead, families from that region—mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and children—sat around a table together, all sharing delicious meals and conversations. They ate food that was available and grown or raised locally.

Although I have visited Italy, France, and Spain, it wasn't until a recent trip to Turkey and Greece that I truly realized there isn't just one Mediterranean Diet; each country from that area has it's own distinctive foods and customs. In general, Mediterranean diets emphasize whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit; less meat and poultry, more fish; and moderate amounts of wine. Their fat is derived mostly from heart-healthy olive oil, nuts, and avocado, and dairy sources are enjoyed mainly through yogurt and cheese.

Despite a history of colorful and culturally-rich cuisine, the obesity crisis that's plaguing our country has spread across the globe like an ink blot on a paper towel. It seems that in many Mediterranean households where both parents are working and kids are eating more than moving, the Mediterranean diet may not even be on their menu. It's as if the desire for convenience and low cost is trumping the need for valuing tradition and health.

So maybe it's time for us all to fill our plates with a helping of history. Here's how we can bring this diet back to our tables and into our hearts:

1. Find fish. Add fish to your diet at least three times a week. Focus on fatty varieties like salmon to get benefits from heart-healthy omega-3 fats and satisfying protein.

2. Go with the grain. Be sure the breads, cereals, and grains you choose are whole grains. It's easy to swap whole-wheat pasta for white types and brown rice for refined white rice. Be sure to check the ingredient list to see that "whole grain" or "whole wheat" is listed first.

3. Go nuts. Whether whole, roasted, raw, sliced, slivered, or crushed, nuts should be added to your shopping list. Nuts are in the news for good reason: They provide healthy fat, they are satiating, and they are delicious. Add them to salads, or as toppings to fish, chicken, or breakfast cereal. Just watch how much you're adding to keep calories in check.

4. Do dairy. There's nothing like the taste of Greek yogurt when you're in Greece, but let's face it, it's not easy to get there for breakfast every day. Check out the many wonderful brands of Greek yogurt that fill U.S. supermarket shelves. And don't forget about skim milk and part-skim cheeses to strengthen your bones.

5. Olive it up. Be sure to use olive oil or canola oil instead of oils containing harmful saturated and trans fats, and ditch foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats. Don't be afraid to add healthy fats like avocado to your regular diet, but as with any food, be mindful of portion sizes.

6. Fruit and veg out. Your mother was right: Eat your veggies and fruit, and the more colorful the better. Meat should be treated like a side dish surrounded by a medley of raw and cooked vegetables, beans, and fruit. This is the tastiest way to keep trim and healthy.

7. Drink responsibly. If you're going to drink wine, do so in moderation as part of a celebration with friends and family. Wine should not be the center of you meal, it should add to the bouquet of flavor surrounding your meal. And just because you're not chewing doesn't mean it doesn't count, so be mindful of the calories in alcoholic beverages.

There are many ways to bring the Mediterranean lifestyle into your home—without ever packing a suitcase. This primer from Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, instructs on how to blend and savor the variety of foods and flavors woven throughout this diet.

In Greek, the word "diet" means "a way of living." They discovered long ago that the best diet is one you can live with and one that helps you live well.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.