By Katherine Ratliff, MS
The Mediterranean diet has become a popular way of eating for many, and for good reason. Since the 1980s, research has consistently shown the Mediterranean diet to be one of the most successful and sustainable diets to support overall health and wellbeing. If following a Mediterranean-style diet in addition to a gluten-free diet sounds intimidating, fear not. There are many ways to incorporate lessons from the Mediterranean that can improve your health without requiring too much additional time or effort. In fact, it’s a natural fit in many ways, since so many components of the Mediterranean diet are naturally gluten free.
Based on traditional eating patterns of this region, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based meals with a focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, and olive oil. In addition, regular physical activity and meals spent with family and friends are also at the center of a Mediterranean lifestyle. It is believed to be this combination of diet and lifestyle that provides many of the health benefits attributed to the Mediterranean diet.
Health Benefits Associated with the Mediterranean Diet
The anti-inflammatory nature of the Mediterranean diet is also responsible for the heart health benefits associated with the diet. One major study assessing the health outcomes of the Mediterranean diet, found that adherence to this style of diet was associated with a 39% reduction in stroke risk, compared to a low-fat diet. An additional study using the same data also found that individuals following the Mediterranean diet showed improvements in blood sugar control, blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol levels.
More recent studies have examined the benefits of a Mediterranean diet beyond heart health. A Meta-Analysis of 12 studies with over 1.5 million subjects found that greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a significant improvement in health, including a 6% reduction in incidence and mortality of cancer and 13% reduction in incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Furthermore, a 2017 article published in the Journal of Neurology found those who more closely follow a Mediterranean diet were less likely to lose brain volume as they age.
A Gluten-Free Mediterranean Diet
Being gluten-free can easily fit in with a Mediterranean-style diet, and as discussed above, a Mediterranean diet provides many additional health benefits for those who are gluten- free. While traditional Mediterranean fare focuses on whole grains, including whole wheat bread and pasta, there are many other delicious gluten-free whole grains that can and should be included.
Quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and brown rice are all excellent gluten-free whole grains. In their whole forms, these grains provide fiber, B-vitamins, magnesium, iron, and selenium. Wheat-based products that are not whole grain are often fortified with some of these nutrients to make up for the vitamins and minerals lost during processing. Unfortunately, gluten-free products that are not whole-grain are generally not fortified with the same nutrients. Therefore, choosing whole grains is even more essential to support health and prevent nutritional deficiency. When grocery shopping, look for breads and pastas made with gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa.
Chickpeas, part of the legume family, can also make excellent gluten-free Mediterranean-style products and are a great way to add more protein to your meals. Look for pasta made with chickpea flour or try making your own Socca, a Mediterranean gluten-free flatbread. Scroll down to the bottom for more Mediterranean-style recipes and ideas.
Vegetables and Fruits
Including a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is at the core of the Mediterranean diet. In fact, residents of Greece often consume nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. If this sounds overwhelming, start by aiming for 1/3 to 1/2 your plate fruits and vegetables at every meal and you’ll be well on your way. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, including antioxidants. These all play an important role in supporting overall health and preventing disease.
Eat the rainbow. Fruits and vegetables get their color from their vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content. For instance, orange-colored vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potato, contain a nutrient called beta-carotene, which supports your eye, heart, and immune function. A colorful plate is a simple way to help ensure you are meeting your micronutrient needs.
A Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based protein sources with the inclusion of fish and poultry at least twice a week. Legumes, including lentils and beans, are abundant in fiber and provide another naturally gluten-free source of B-vitamins. In fact, it is likely the inclusion of high fiber foods, such as legumes, whole grains, and vegetables that play such an important role in the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Given the region’s proximity to fresh seafood, it is no wonder that consistent intake of fish is such an important aspect of the Mediterranean diet. Seafood, especially fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna, are excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fats play an important role in reducing inflammation and supporting brain health. Looking for a simple yet delicious way to prepare fish? Check out the fish en papillote recipe at the bottom.
Olive oil is likely the most well-known component of the Mediterranean diet. However, it is not the only fat that contributes to the Mediterranean’s health benefits. Avocado, nuts, and seeds also play a large role. Abundant in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, these foods support heart health by reducing LDL cholesterol, lowering triglyceride levels, and improving blood flow and vessel health. Olive oil also contains specific phytonutrients called phenols that are believed to provide additional benefit. It is these phenolic compounds that also give olive oil its distinct grassy taste.
When purchasing olive oil, look for extra virgin olive oil to ensure all the valuable antioxidant-rich phytonutrients are still present. Labels such as “light” or “extra light” refer to oils that have undergone more processing, which reduces, if not destroys, the phenolic compounds naturally found in olive oil.
Some research indicates that red wine, when consumed in moderation (1 drink/day for women and 2 drinks/day for men), provides additional heart health benefits to the Mediterranean diet.. Research has shown that antioxidants, including a specific polyphenol called resveratrol, may provide the health benefits associated with red wine. Polyphenols, a type of phytonutrient, may reduce cardiovascular disease risk by protecting the lining of blood vessels. In addition, studies have found that all types of alcohol support heart health by reducing LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol. Despite the above potential benefits, it is important to note that current research does not recommend starting to drink to prevent heart disease.
10 Tips for Starting a Gluten-Free Mediterranean Diet
- Make half your plateproduce: Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to allow for a diverse array of micronutrients.
- Snack wisely:Pick whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds as snacks. These nutrient-rich foods will keep you feeling full and satisfied between meals, while also providing your body with the beneficial nutrients that make the Mediterranean diet so healthy.
- Choose whole grains: Start by making a large batch of a gluten-free whole grain for the week. Use your creativity skills and see how many different ways you can use this grain. Need ideas? Check out the GIG Whole Grain webpage (https://gluten.org/resources/diet-nutrition/gluten-free-grains/ ).
- Try Meatless Mondays:If including more plant-based meals sounds intimidating, start with one meal a week. Meatless Mondays can be a fun way to involve your friends and family in your new endeavor. Try making black bean tacos or homemade lentil patties.
- Include healthy fats:Cook with avocado oil (high heat) and olive oil (low-moderate heat) to incorporate more heart-healthy fats into your meals. Choose nuts and seeds as snacks. Try a new type of seafood each month.
- Sip on hydrating fluids: Staying hydrated is key to a healthy and happy digestive system. A Mediterranean diet is naturally high in fiber. To help keep things moving, make sure to enjoy hydrating fluids, such as water and tea, throughout the day.
- Spice it up: Add flavor to dishes by using fresh or dried herbs and spices, rather than salt. This will provide more depth to your meal, while also reducing sodium content.
- Try one new recipe each week: Following a gluten-free diet can be challenging enough, let alone adding an additional layer. Start gradually by including one new Mediterranean-style recipe each week. This way you can slowly build up your repertoire without becoming overwhelmed.
- Enjoy food with family and friends: Community is key to creating successful and sustainable habits. Whether you are enjoying a meal with your family or meeting other gluten-free individuals, building community allows a meal to be both nutritional and emotional nourishment.
- Include joyful movement daily: You don’t have to go to the gym every day to stay active! Find a form of movement that brings you joy. Whether it’s dancing, yoga, hiking, or biking, finding physical activity that you enjoy will help you develop a life-long habit.
Tuna and White Bean Salad with Kale Pesto: http://sweetcayenne.com/tuna-and-white-bean-salad-with-kale-pesto/
Fish en Papillote: https://www.fromachefskitchen.com/mediterranean-fish-en-papillote/
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