Well-known for promoting longevity, the Mediterranean diet is based on a wide spectrum of popular and healthy foods. Bordering some 21 countries including France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Syria and Turkey, the Mediterranean is a large sun drenched area where life abounds. While most individual nutritious ingredients of the diet have long been the subject of health related commentary, using them to prepare whole meals from scratch is best for optimizing the medicinal benefits (and flavor). The following article will explore ten of the healthiest foods from the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean Top Ten
Part I: Top 5 Protein Sources
*Lamb (Sheep) – Ovis aries (Bovidae)
Meat from sheep less than one year old is called lamb, whereas that from older sheep is called mutton. Even in commercial lots, lambs tend to be raised more humanely than calves. Lamb contains Vitamin B, iron, protein, tryptophan, and zinc. Grass-fed lamb contains Omega-3. Lamb tallow (lard) is useful for cooking. Lamb bones contain large amounts of gelatin and are stewed into stock used (with barley) in a soup called Scotch Broth.
*Wheat (Bulgar)–Triticum spp. (Poaceae)
A form of wheat that is parboiled and de-branned, bulgar should not to be confused with cracked wheat (crushed wheat berries). Wheat contains Vitamins B1, B2, B3 and iron, along with magnesium, manganese, fiber, and tryptophan. Bulgar is low in fat, high in fiber, and contains protein. Bulgar is used in the dish tabouli.
*Sesame (seed) – Sesamum indicum (Pedaliacea)
Sesame seeds contain lineolic acid, an unsaturated essential Omega-6 fatty acid. Sesame contains Vitamins B3 and E, folic acid, and protein. Sesame seeds are native to Africa, and are made into a paste called tahini (a key component in both hummus and baba ganoush).
*Garbanzo (bean) – Cicer arietinum (Faboideae)
Also called chickpeas, garbanzo beans contain tryptophan, copper, fiber, folate, iron, manganese, molybdenum, protein, phosphorous and tryptophan. Originating in the Middle East, these legumes help lower cholesterol, balance blood sugar levels, and contain natural sulfites that feature detoxifying properties. Garbanzo beans are a key component in hummus. As with most grains, dried garbanzo beans are sproutable seeds.
*Pine (nut) – Pinus pinea (Pinaceae)
The seeds of pine trees, pine nuts contain the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, along with Vitamins A, C, and D. Pine nuts contain protein and fiber. Pine nuts help to improve cardiovascular health, strengthen teeth and bones, boost the immune system, sharpen vision and help the body to absorb other nutrients. Pine nuts are a key component in pesto.
Part II: Top 5 Plant Foods
*Olive – Olea Europaea (Oleaceae)
Fresh olives, along with oil from the first cold pressing, contain oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fatty acid. Olives help lower blood pressure, treat asthma, relieve arthritis, prevent diabetes, increase metabolism and help treat and prevent cancer. Olives have anti-inflammatory properties.
*Grape (leaf and fruit) – Vitis vinifera (Vitaceae)
Red grapes contain anthocyanins, known for their cardiovascular protective effects, along with Vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. Grapes also contain flavonoids, tannins, tartrates, inositol, carotenes, choline and pectin. The sap of the grape vine is used as an eyewash. Grapes are fermented to make red wine, white wine and balsamic vinegar. The ashes of burnt grape branches are a natural tooth whitener if used long term. Both grape leaves and grape vinegar have anti-inflammatory effects and soothe irritated skin. Grapes reduce digestive problems, relieve menstruation symptoms, and strengthen capillaries. As grape plasma is close to blood plasma, “grape fasts” are used for detoxification.
*Eggplant – Solanum melongena (Solanaceae)
Eggplant contains nasunin, a phytonutrient, flavonoid and antioxidant. Also called aubergine, eggplant contains caffeic and chlorogenic acid (phenolic compounds), along with magnesium and potassium. Eggplant protects the brain from free radical damage, reduces cholesterol and improves cardiovascular health. A member of the nightshade family, eggplant has antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties.
*Parsley – Petroselinum crispum (Umbelliferae)
Parsley contains myristicin and aiole, both volatile oils and antioxidants. Parsley also contains Vitamins A, C, and E, along with bergapten, flavonoids, iron, coumarins, and phthalides. Also a natural pain reliever, parsley relieves menstruation symptoms. Fresh parsley can be chewed to neutralize garlic breath. Parsley has anti-inflammatory properties. Parsley root has medicinal properties.
*Mint (leaf) – Mentha x piperita (Lamiaceae)
Peppermint contains menthol and menthone, both volatile oils, along with the antioxidants luteolin and menthoside. A natural digestive aid, peppermint relaxes the abdominal muscles, reduces nausea, relieves constipation and soothes irritated skin. A natural pain reliever, peppermint oil relieves headaches and even migraines when rubbed on the temples. A hybrid of spearmint (menthe spicata) and watermint (menthe hirsute), peppermint has antibacterial, antifungal and antispasmodic properties.
Part III: Serving Suggestions
Lamb is often mixed with beef, slow cooked, sliced thin and served on pita bread (Gyros). This dish is served with a blend of cucumber, yogurt and dill called Tzaziki sauce.
However a much easier (and healthier) dish is also one of the easiest foods to make at home: hummus. The only four required ingredients are garbanzo beans, tahini, lemon and garlic. Optional ingredients include olive oil, red pepper, and sun-dried tomato.
For hummus, mix 1 can of garbanzo beans with 1/2 cup tahini (about a 2 to 1 ratio of mostly beans). Add the juice of 1 lemon and 1-3 garlic cloves, and optional ingredients.
For baba ganoush, substitute mashed (cooked) eggplant for garbanzo beans in the hummus recipe. Mash or blend ingredients and sprinkle with paprika for color.
Serve with pita bread, lemon wedges and sprigs of parsley.
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants
– Dorling Kindersley and Andrew Chevallier
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