When you are browsing through the fresh vegetable section of your grocery store or farmers market in the late summer, you may spot something that draws you over for a second look. Romanesco broccoli makes it’s glorious appearance during a short time window of late summer and early fall. This unique vegetable is native to the Mediterranean, specifically Italy. Today it grows in several other countries including the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Romanesco and Perfect Math
Like the other cruciferous vegetables, romanesco broccoli is from the genus and species Brassica Olercea. It also goes by the names of Roman cauliflower, broccoflower, romanesco cauliflower and even romanesco cabbage. The florets of romanesco are arranged in spirals, and each spiral is made up of groups of smaller spirals. As you get into a smaller scale the spirals still look the same. This detailed pattern that repeats itself as it gets smaller is called a fractal pattern. You can find similar patterns in sunflowers, pine cones, ferns, and snowflakes. The florets are also arranged in spirals that follow the Fibonacci number sequence. This is a mathematical phenomenon where the next number is found by the sum of the two preceding numbers. The sequence starts out as 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Sunflowers and pinecones display classic Fibonacci spirals.
Nutrition in Romanesco Broccoli
This vegetable is not just a beautiful centerpiece or mathematical wonder. It is also delicious with a mild, nutty taste, and packed with enough nutrients to qualify as a super food. Like its close cousin broccoli, romanesco only has about 25 calories per cup. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, especially if you eat it fresh and with a minimal of cooking. It is packed with fiber, and high in carotenoids such as beta-carotene, which your body uses to make vitamin A. Romanesco contains many different minerals and vitamins but is a particularly good source of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K and folate.
Like the other cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, to name a few), this food has several phyto nutrients that are powerful antioxidants and cancer fighting chemicals. Just a few of these are isothiocyanates, indole-3-carbinol, flavonols such as kaempferol, and compounds needed for your body to make glutathione.
How to Prepare Romanesco
You can cut the florets off the stalk of a romanesco plant just as you would cauliflower or broccoli. Then slice the large ones lengthwise to make smaller pieces. The taste is milder than cauliflower or broccoli, and the florets don’t fall apart as easily when you cook them. This vegetable can be incorporated into all sorts of recipes where you would use broccoli or cauliflower. The simplest cooking method is to steam it or boil it lightly until it is just tender, and then toss with a bit of olive oil and some seasonings. Romanesco is a natural paired up with pasta. The recipe below is a quick, easy and delicious introduction to romanesco.
- 1 head of romanesco, cut into bite-size florets
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 pound campanelle pasta, or another similar variety with some thickness and bite
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
- grated fresh parmesan cheese
1. Lightly steam the romanesco until it is tender.
2. Cook pasta according to package directions, drain and reserve.
2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic, red pepper flakes and simmer for about 5 minutes, taking care not to let the garlic burn. Add tomato paste and mix well. Add lemon juice and stir.
3. Add romanesco florets and pasta to the oil mixture, and toss to coat all the ingredients. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
Theobroma Cacao is one of the richest and most seductive tastes we can find. It represents luxury, love, sex and guilty pleasure. We feel like we are addicted to chocolate, even though there are no addictive chemicals there. If chocolate tastes so good, it must be bad for you, right? Well, maybe not. There is growing evidence that adding dark chocolate to your diet can actually be beneficial.
Can dark chocolate really be good for you?
Chocolate, or the cacao seed that it is made from, actually has quite a few essential nutrients and phytonutrients. While nourishing your body, it also releases chemicals that can make your mind feel pretty darn good. What about the calories and fat you get from eating chocolate? The trick here is in choosing the right kind of chocolate, so that you are maximizing the nutrients without loading up on the unhealthy added ingredients that will just weigh you down.
History of Chocolate
The cacao fruit was cultivated in Mexico, Central and South America for hundreds of years before Europeans came to this part of the world. We know this because archaeologists have found cocoa residue in the cooking vessels from this area. Cacao seeds were not only consumed, but used as money and accepted as a payment for taxes.
When Columbus discovered the New World he brought the cacao plant back to Europe where the wealthy adopted it as a drink. Around 1828 a cacao press was invented, which produced cocoa butter. Add a few extra ingredients and this could be made into a dark chocolate bar, cheaper and more widely available than the cocoa drink of the elite. In 1876 the Swiss took it one step further and added milk to the bar, producing the more palatable milk chocolate. You know the rest of the story. Chocolate today is available in just about every form of confectionary, and combined with almost every flavouring you can dream up, including passion fruit and chili pepper.
Chocolate is chock full of nutrients.
Unsweetened chocolate is 40-50 % fat, from three types of fat: palmitic and stearic acids, which are saturated, and oleic acid, which is mono-unsaturated. A heart healthy diet is made up of more mono and poly-unsaturated fats, so the oleic acid is good. However studies have shown that stearic acid, the saturated fat in chocolate, does NOT raise blood cholesterol levels. So as part of your daily fat intake, the type of fats in that are found naturally in chocolate can be beneficial to your health. When you add milk, butter fat and other ingredients to your chocolate, you have tipped the balance over to ‘”bad” fats which you shouldn’t be eating.
Chocolate is a very good source of magnesium, potassium and iron. All of these are essential elements we need in our diets. They help regulate your fluid balance, your heart beat, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and many other functions. Read more about these essential elements. Chocolate also has some zinc, copper, calcium, manganese, vitamin A and a handful of B vitamins.
The cacao plant takes it’s name from theobromine, a phytonutrient which can lower blood pressure, relax the bronchial muscles, relieve a cough and acts as a diuretic and a stimulant. There is a small amount of caffeine in chocolate, but only the equivalent of drinking some decaf coffee. There are large quantities of phytonutrients in chocolate known as flavonoids. These flavonoids are powerful antioxidants, and are present in greater quantities than red wine and green tea. One flavonoid, epicatechin mimics the action of insulin, and can lower the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes.
A word about flavonoids, flavanol and flavonol. Flavonoids are a large family of phytonutrients, found in plants. They include chemicals such as anthocyanidins, flavones, flavanols, flavonols, isoflavones, and yes, even flavanones. This can get really confusing, and you will see these words misused continuously. The one we find in chocolate, epicatechin, is a flavanol, which is in the broader category of flavonoid.
An amino acid in chocolate called tryptophan can trigger an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin plays many roles, but one important finding is that low levels of this chemical can lead to depression, anxiety and anger.
Cacao seeds contain a chemical called anandamide which resemble THC, the active chemical of marijuana that gives you a high. This chemical was named for the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Anandamide works on the same receptors as THC, to give you a feeling of well-being or even a brief euphoria. I think we’ve all experienced it while eating chocolate! You won’t get high from eating chocolate, though, because anandamide breaks down much more quickly than THC.
Another brain altering chemical in chocolate is phenylethylamine, or PEA, which is related to amphetamines. This is also known as the “love drug” which gives chocolate its reputation as an aphrodisiac. PEA releases dopamine, and temporarily increases blood pressure and blood glucose, creating a feeling of alertness, maybe of passion!
Chocolate and the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is widely recognized now heart healthy, and it seems every week a new study comes out about the benefits of this style of eating. One such study which was completed in February of 2013 allowed the participants who followed the Mediterranean Diet plan to eat as much dark chocolate as they wanted. This group had a 30% reduction in the risk of heart disease during the study.
A practical plan for getting a daily dose of chocolate.
A one ounce square of bittersweet or semisweet baking chocolate has a minimal amount of sugar added, just enough to make it delicious. It has about 140 calories, compared to 210 calories in a Hersheys chocolate bar, 280 in a Snickers bar, 350 calories in a normal-sized piece of chocolate cake with icing, and 290 calories in a Dunkin Donuts chocolate cake donut. This can easily be worked into your calorie allotment for the day.
Baking chocolate is a concentrated powerhouse of chocolate flavour, and it goes a long way towards taking away any cravings you have for other sweets. You can also choose from plenty of gourmet dark chocolates on the market which advertise 70% cocoa content, but these are much more expensive. They are also thin, whereas baking chocolate usually comes in a thick chunk that really takes a while to eat. Baking chocolate can be had for less than 50 cents an ounce. Eat it slowly, maybe dipping it in a hot drink and licking the chocolate away as it starts to melt.
Baking chocolate and dark chocolate have more of the healthy antioxidants and phytonutrients than milk chocolate. Real cocoa is better than hot chocolate mixes, but Dutch cocoa has a lot of flavanols removed in the “dutching” process. So choose your chocolate wisely, and then enjoy it without a trace of guilt.
References and other delicious chocolate web sites:
Nutrition Facts about Chocolate
Chocolate: Food of the Gods
Dove dark chocolate experiment
Journal of the American College of Nutrition Chocolate study.
Healthy indulgences: The benefits of chocolate and wine
The gluten-free food section at my local store keeps growing, and more and more companies are offering this choice, or simply reminding us that their product doesn’t have gluten. However up until this month there were no rules for this type of labeling. Anyone could claim that their food did not contain gluten. Now the FDA has finally ruled on exactly what a gluten free label means. Foods that make this claim can have no more than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. This tiny amount is the lowest level that can be detected with the tools that are available to us today. Congress instructed the FDA to set rules for this type of labeling back in 2004, and the nine year process is finally complete.
What is Celiac Disease?
Gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is a condition where gluten in the diet causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. The intestine is no longer able to absorb the nutrients from many foods, and as a result a person with this condition can suffer symptoms of a whole range of nutritional deficiencies. The only treatment for this disease is to stop eating gluten, and this is why the gluten-free labeling is so important. Gluten intolerant people need to be able to trust that the foods they are eating are really free of gluten.
This rule will also apply to dietary supplements who choose to use gluten free labels. It only applies to food intended for humans, so animal products are still unregulated. The compliance date is August 14, 2014, which gives manufacturers a year to make sure that any foods labeled gluten free meet these requirements.
You can read the text of the final rule and a summary of all the comments and responses that were a part of the decision making process at the Federal Register.
If you have a thriving vegetable garden zucchini time can bring on a shower of emotions: joy and amazement leading into horror and perhaps panic as the monster vegetables seem to multiply overnight. I don’t grow zucchini, but someone recently gave me one of these green giants of the summer. This is a versatile vegetable, with a mild taste that plays well with both sweet and savory foods. From soups to casseroles to breads to desserts, cooks and gardeners have come up with a myriad of ways to cook up their excess. Zucchini is unique among vegetables in the amount of recipes that pair it up with chocolate.
A Bit About Zucchini
The large squash family of vegetables originated in the Americas, and early European explorers carried seeds back to their homelands. Now different types of squash are used extensively in cooking all throughout Europe. The zucchini itself was first grown in Italy, and the name comes from an Italian word meaning little squash.
Zucchini is a good source of vitamin C, providing about a third of the daily requirement in a serving. It also gives you around 10% of your daily dose of vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B6. It contains many essential minerals including copper, molybdenum, magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc, phosphorus and iron. This vegetable provides is a good way to get the phyto-nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids with strong antioxidant properties. All in all this vegetable is a low calorie, low fat and low carbohydrate food packaged up with plenty of fiber and essential nutrients. The fact that it goes so well with chocolate is just an extra bonus.
Cooking With Zucchini
Baked goods that use grated zucchini are deliciously moist due to the large water content locked up in the fibers of this vegetable. You want to grate it just before using, since the water will drain out if you let it sit around. Breads and chocolate cakes, muffins, cookies and brownies made with zucchini are the stars of the kitchen during the late days of summer.
For an easy way to prepare a monster such as you see in the photos as a main dish, slice it into rounds about ½ inch thick and serve up individual portions of zucchini parmesan. This recipe makes eight large rounds, enough for four large or eight small servings, and it is easily adjustable.
- 1 large unpeeled zucchini, sliced into as many ½ inch thick rounds as you would like to serve.
- 2 eggs, beaten (for about 8 large slices zucchini)
- about 1 cup of cornmeal
- olive oil for frying
- a cup or two of good quality spaghetti sauce
- 1/4 pound fresh parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
- Dip slices in beaten egg and then dredge in the cornmeal.
- Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet and fry zucchini slices until golden on both sides.
- Arrange the fried slices on a large, greased baking sheet in a single layer. Top each with a spoonful of spaghetti sauce, spreading to the edges.
- Combine the two cheeses in a bowl. Cover slices with cheese mixture.
- Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until cheese is browned and bubbling.
What are your favorite ways to prepare zucchini?
Two things have been on an upward trend in the United States over the past several decades. Americans who consume artificial sweeteners in foods increased from 70 million in 1987 to 160 million in 2000. During that same period obesity rates went from 15% to 30%. Obesity rates were above 35% in 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control, and judging from the amount of these products on grocery shelves I would guess consumption of these sweeteners has also been skyrocketing. If foods with ingredients like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, stevia and sorbitol have less calories, shouldn’t they be helping people to LOSE weight? Is there a link between non-caloric sweeteners and crazy weight gain?
Artificial Sweeteners and Energy Balance
A study that looked at the effects of saccharin on the energy balance of rats was published in the Journal of Behavioural Neuroscience in February 2008. The purpose was to test the hypothesis that when foods that taste sweet do not accurately reflect the amount of calories and the nutritive value coming into the body, then the bodies ability to regulate energy is compromised, and your body stops responding to sweet foods in the tightly regulated way of a healthy metabolism.
In other words, if you continually feed your body foods that taste sweet but don’t deliver the promised load of calories, you may be tampering with the mechanisms that digest sugar and extra carbohydrates.
The sweet tasting but low calorie diet fed to rats in this study had several results that someone watching their weight does not want to see: increased caloric intake at a later meal, increased body weight, and increased body fat. Rats who ate the artificial sweetener also had a poor metabolic response, as measured by thermic or heat response to sweet-tasting foods. A lower temperature in the gut meant they were not expending as much energy to digest these foods as rats eating regular sugar. This lowered thermic response occurred even after they ate foods with a normal load of calories.
The Effects of Diet Soda
If you are wondering whether you should worry at all about experiments performed on rats, there have also been several studies on humans showing the adverse effects of diet soda. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 showed that both sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages produced the same risk for type 2 diabetes. This study followed over 66,000 French women over a period of 9 years.
A study presented at the American Diabetes Association’s Scientific Sessions in June of 2011 followed 477 people over a period of about ten years, measuring height, weight, waist circumference and diet soda intake. The group that reported drinking diet sodas had a 70 percent greater waist circumference increase during that time period. Some frequent diet soda drinkers had as much as a 500% increase in waist circumference!
In July of 2013 Susan Swithers, who headed up the rat research mentioned at the beginning of this article, published a paper in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. She summarized the accumulating evidence that artificial sweeteners can lead to what she calls metabolic derangement. This is a great name for the condition mentioned earlier where the body “forgets” how to respond to signals of sweetness in food, and doesn’t metabolize sugar properly.
Aside from any possible changes to the metabolism, sweeteners without calories are a poor choice for people who are trying to overcome a sweet tooth and develop healthy eating habits. They are many times sweeter than sugar, and continuing to feed your body these foods just encourages the craving and makes you want to seek out more sweetness.
Most of the research done with humans on this topic looks at diet sodas, but there are also many other foods that contain artificial sweeteners, including yogurt, ice cream, puddings, candy and cookies and those little packets you sprinkle into your coffee or tea.
Artificial sweeteners are already under scrutiny for their possible link with cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukemia, and have been for years. Now we can add obesity and diabetes to the list of reasons not to reach for that diet soda.
Do you depend on artificial sweeteners for that sweet taste you crave? If you are eating less sweet foods, what has worked for you?
The Mediterranean Diet is not just all about delicious food, with its chocolate, nuts and olive oil. Research has begun to show that there is a definite health benefit to this type of cuisine. Lately I wrote about a study showing that the Mediterranean Diet is good for the heart. Just last month several more studies were published showing it may help to slow down cognitive decline and the aging process, and even help with menopausal symptoms
The Mediterranean Diet and Aging
On April 24, 2013, the International Journal of Molecular Sciences published a review on how the Mediterranean diet can affect aging caused by oxidation. You can download the full text at their web site linked above.
Many of the diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and cancer, may be caused by the long term effects of damage caused by oxidation. One type of damage is the breakdown of the endothelium, which is the thin layer of cells lining the blood vessels. Another is the accelerated shortening of telomeres, which are protein complexes located at the ends of chromosomes. Telomere length can determine overall heath, lifespan and the rate at which you age.
These changes may be caused by genetics or things in our environment. Diet is one of the main ways we have to take in antioxidants that can alleviate this damage. This review pulls together a number of studies that look at the effects of various foods and nutrients on oxidative aging. They cite studies on such foods as resveratrol (found in wine), high fiber diets, caloric restriction, marine omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), and extra virgin olive oil.
The Mediterranean Diet and Cognitive Decline
The second study was published in Neurology on April 30, 2013. The objective was to determine the relationship between Mediterranean Diet and ICI, or incident cognitive impairment. They began with more than 30,000 individuals, older than 45 years and either white or black but non-Hispanic. By the time they had weeded out those who had a history of stroke or cognitive impairment already, or who did not fill out the food questionnaires properly, they were down to 17,478 participants.
One of the interesting aspects is that this study was conducted at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The subjects were from what is known as the stroke belt of the United States, and people in this area typically follow a most un-Mediterranean-like diet.
The study ran from 2003 to 2007, and most of the data such as health history and diet was self reported by the participants. After correcting for different factors such as environment, demographics, depression and other health problems, those that followed the Mediterranean Diet were 19 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment. An interesting finding was that if a participant had diabetes, as 17% of them did, following the Mediterranean Diet did not protect them from cognitive decline.
Granted, four years is not a long period of time to test cognitive decline, and such a young population might not be showing signs of dementia. They used a general test to measure cognitive decline which did not specify exactly what types of cognitive impairment were occurring. So it is too early to say that this diet will prevent specific diseases like dementia or Alzheimers.
You can download a pdf or read the text version of the study at the Cambridge University Press.
Help for Hot Flashes from the Mediterranean Diet
A third study published in April in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that women following a Mediterranean-type diet consisting of garlic, salad greens, pasta, red wine and various fruits were 20 percent less likely to report hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause. This was compared to a group of women eating a diet high in fats and sugar. Over 6000 women participated in this study over a nine year period. It would be interesting to know if there is a specific food that has this effect, or if it is a synergy of several different ingredients. I might add a little more red wine to my diet if I thought it would help.
Have you tried the Mediterranean Diet?
The fruit of the tamarind tree grows in a curved pod covered with a thin, barky skin. The skin peels away easily to reveal the sticky, reddish-brown, sweet, tangy and delightful pulp. Tamarind is prominent in Indian and Thai cuisine, in fact the Indian section of your grocer is a good place to start looking for this ingredient. Other Asian countries use it as well, as do Mexicans, and you may very well find it in a Caribbean jerk recipe. Worcestershire sauce, a staple of British and American kitchens, contains tamarind as a flavoring ingredient.
Tamarind was nicknamed Indian date by the British, and is known in various Asian countries as asam jawa, siyambala and sampalog.
You can buy tamarind already made into a paste, or as a syrup with added sweetener, or you can prepare the paste yourself. If you really want to start from scratch get the tamarind pods. Remove the outer bark from the pod and you will get what is basically a long row of sticky, pulp covered seeds. Just pull off the long, wiry membranes that run along the length of the pod. You can break the row apart into sections, and each section will have a hard, black seed at the center. The pulp is delicious, like a sour, chewy candy with smoky undertones. Just don’t forget to spit out the seed. Tamarind is very low in calories – about 5 in the whole pod. I find them to be a great appetite suppressant, but be careful because if you eat too many it can have a laxative effect similar to prunes.
If you are making a sauce or soup stock that you will be straining anyway, you can just throw the tamarind right into the pot and let it cook with the rest of the ingredients.
The next step up from buying the pods is to buy a chunk of tamarind pulp. This comes in a hard brick sometimes called imli. Some varieties have a large amount of fiber, seeds and even the outer bark mixed in. If possible look for seedless pulp, with a minimum of solid debris mixed in. Either way, here is the method for making tamarind paste.
- Place your brick in a large bowl, breaking it in half or quarters. Cover with water that is hot but not painfully hot. You will be putting your hands in the water.
- Use your hands to break up the lumps as it softens and massage the pulp until most of it has dissolved away from the solids.
- Strain with a fine sieve into a clean bowl.
- Put the remaining solids back in original bowl, pour a small amount of water over and repeat process, straining again into the bowl with the first batch.
If you want your paste to be thicker, you can boil it down. One 8 ounce brick will yield about 1 1/2 cups of boiled down paste. Since many recipes only use 2 or 3 tablespoons of paste, this will last you for quite a while. You can store this in the fridge for a month or two, maybe longer. If you don’t use it as much, just break a smaller chunk of the brick and prepare a smaller amount of paste. The brick can keep in a cupboard, well wrapped, practically forever.
Tamarind is high in iron and vitamin C, and also contains some B vitamins, magnesium and potassium. It has been used as traditional medicine to treat fevers, sunstroke, sore throats and as a dressing for wounds. It is reported to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and to enhance the effects of ibuprofen. A study published in the Malaysian Journal of Nutrition in 2009 showed that tamarind has substantial antioxidant properties.
Tamarind paste is way too tart on its own and is usually mixed with sugar, spices, or other fruits. What can you make with tamarind? It goes great with fish and seafood, and can be used as a glaze or sauce for chicken, turkey or beef. Tamarind is one of the ingredients you need for Pad Thai. You can add it to stir fried vegetables and I have seen it as a flavoring for different cocktails.
For a simple vegetarian recipe using tamarind try Potatoes with Tamarind, a tangy twist on potato salad with Indian spices.
Potatoes with Tamarind
- 2 pounds medium white potatoes (about 6)
- 5 tablespoons strained tamarind paste
- ¼ teaspoon asafetida (found in Indian stores, optional)
- 1 ½ teaspoons molasses
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 ¼ teaspoons cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (or cayenne)
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro or parsley
- green chilies cut in strips for garnish
- Peel potatoes, cover with water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until potatoes are just tender all the way through. Drain, and cut into ½ inch cubes.
- Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet. Add asafetida. Add tamarind paste, molasses, ginger, black pepper, cumin and red pepper. Cook and stir over medium heat until paste is slightly thickened.
- Pour tamarind mixture over potatoes and mix well. Garnish with parsley and green chili strips. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Potatoes with Tamarind
Wouldn’t you like to be able to eat unlimited chocolate, drink red wine every day, indulge in mixed nuts, and cook gourmet sauces of tomatoes and garlic simmered in olive oil several times a week?
If you follow the world of nutrition at all you have probably heard of the Mediterranean diet plan. For many years there has been epidemiological evidence that people living in this area of the world and eating a diet high in fish, olive oil, and fruits and vegetables supplemented with wine have a lower incidence of heart disease. However it is hard to draw conclusions from this kind of evidence since there are so many other differences besides diet between someone living in Spain or Italy, and someone in, say, Upstate New York. Now we finally have a clinical study to back up the theory that the Mediterranean diet is good for your heart.
New Evidence Shows Benefits of Mediterranean Diet
The study took place in Spain, and is referred to as the PREDIMED trial, which stands for Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea. On February 25, 2013, the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Over 7000 men and women participated in the trial, all living in the Mediterranean region, as the study took place in Spain. They did not have heart disease at the start of the study but they all had one or more factors which put them at a higher risk for this condition.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group followed a standard Mediterranean diet with the addition of extra olive oil each day, one followed the Mediterranean diet with the addition of extra nuts, and the third, which was the control group, followed a low fat diet. After almost five years, the study was ended early because of significant results showing the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. The groups on this diet had a 30% reduction in the risk of heart disease compared to the control group.
I encourage you to read the study following the link above. You can find a detailed list of all the foods that were allowed in the supplementary index. The participants who were supposed to eat extra olive oil and nuts were actually given an allotment of these foods every week. The olive oil was extra virgin, and the nuts were almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. They were allowed to eat as much as they wanted and they did not gain weight doing this. Other foods that were included in the study were sofrito, which is a mixture of onion, tomato, garlic and herbs simmered in olive oil, and a glass of wine every day, with a meal. They were allowed to eat as much as wanted of dark chocolate (at least 50% cocoa), low fat cheese, whole grain cereals, eggs, seafood, fish and nuts. I have to feel sorry for the poor souls who were assigned to eat the low fat diet for 5 years!
How to Follow a Mediterranean Diet Plan
Naturally it is easiest to follow this diet if you happen to live in the Mediterranean, but one great thing about it is that it is highly adaptable. You can substitute the fruits, vegetables, nuts and types of fish that are available locally, and just about everyone can get their hands on olive oil in this day and age. Here are the general guidelines for the diet the way it was presented for this study.
- Use olive oil abundantly (preferably extra virgin), at least 4 tablespoons per day.
- Eat at least two servings of vegetables per day, preferably fresh.
- Eat at least three servings of fresh fruits per day.
- Eat at least three serving of nuts per week.
- Eat at least three servings of legumes per week.
- Eat three servings of fish or seafood per week (at least one being a fatty type of fish like salmon).
- Use white meats (poultry or rabbit) instead of red meats.
- Cook at least twice a week using sofrito, the tomato, garlic and onion sauce mentioned above.
- Limit intake of cream, butter, margarine, pate and duck, sodas, pastries, bakery products, sugary desserts, french fries, potato chips and processed foods.
- Chocolate with more than 50% cocoa is allowed.
- Choose whole grain cereals.
- If you are used to drinking wine have a glass once a day (7 per week) with a meal. Your alcoholic intake should be made up mostly of wine, but don’t start drinking just for this diet.
Why the Mediterranean Diet is Good for You
The fish and nuts that are prominent in the Mediterranean diet plan are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower triglyceride levels and reduce blood clotting. Fresh fruits and vegetables are packaged up with a whole spectrum of vitamins and phytonutrients, which act as antioxidants in our bodies and can help prevent cancer and heart disease. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fatty acid, which has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Olives also contain hydroxytyrosol, a powerful antioxidant that can reduce free radical damage to blood vessels.
Legumes are high in many B vitamins and minerals, and contain insoluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. The sofrito features garlic, a good source of the phytonutrient allicin, which can inhibit growth of harmful bacteria in the digestive tract. The tomatoes are loaded with lycopene. This is a carotenoid with cancer-fighting properties, and simmering the tomatoes in olive oil is the best way to cook them to make the lycopene available.
Although the study did not specify between red or white wine, many times you will see this diet calling for red wine. Red wine is high in the phytonutrient resveratrol, which has the properties of being antibiotic, antimutagen, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Dark chocolate is also a good source of resveratrol, and several other phytonutrients like theobromine.
This just scratches the surface of the many beneficial nutrients you can find in the Mediterranean diet. In the discussion of the study they surmise that the benefits of the diet do not come from any one food, but from the synergy of all the different foods, which work together to regulate insulin and blood lipids, decrease inflammation and resist oxidation. All of these things are good for the heart.
A healthy heart is only one of the benefits that may come from following this diet, since all of those phytonutrients and healthy fats may help fight other diseases such as cancer, depression, inflammatory diseases, diabetes and more.
You can read more about all of the phytonutrients I mentioned at thirdplanetfood.
Have you tried the Mediterranean diet?
Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day. This National Nutrition Month slogan speaks to me because I am not living in the country where I grew up. The cross cultural foods I like and crave are quite different from what most people around me are eating.
One Food Does Not Fit All
I grew up in Nigeria, but lived in a community of Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, and many other nationalities. The food in West Africa is as different as you can get from food in the northern hemispheres. Nigerian food is heavy with oil, sometimes slippery, featuring dried fish, goat meat and many exotic starches like yams and cassava. There are those strange tropical fruits called pitanga cherry and guava, and the over-the-top seasoning of searing hot peppers. All of this sounds delightful to me since I have been eating it since childhood, but the adults longed for the familiar foods from their homelands, and went to great lengths to recreate them with the ingredients that were on hand.
We sometimes visited a German family who lived in the “bush,” or far from civilization. This darling woman would bring out a dessert cart at the end of dinner, loaded with sugary baked confections that were few and far between in our world. How did she manage this living in a place with no grocery store, and probably cooking with a wood stove? She was going to entertain her way regardless of the obstacles.
We made “cream” from milk and gelatin, “cranberry sauce” from the flowers of the yakwa plant, and “pickles” with pawpaw. Mangoes were a stand-in for both apples and peaches in mock apple pie, ripe mango “peach” pie, and mock apple sauce. A cookbook written up by the community is full of mock and imitation recipes. We hang on to the that food we love and are used to eating.
Find a Healthy Diet that is Right For You
On the flip side of this story, I am now living in a cold northern climate and I miss terribly all the West African foods that I ate as a child. Sure it is easier to find those ingredients now than it was 20 years ago, but something is always lost in the translation when I prepare a dish. I can almost always get mangoes at the grocery store, and I find it ironic that living in the land of apples, I go to the trouble to make mango sauce, which was originally made as a substitute for apple sauce. Apples are a dime a dozen here, and I don’t find them all that appealing.
So you see, it is important to eat your way, in fact most people insist on it, even when they have to go to a lot of extra trouble. In order to follow a healthy diet every day, you must have food choices that you like to eat. Whether you are vegan, paleotarian, gluten intolerant or diabetic, there is a unique diet that is right for you. Whether you come from Nigeria, Singapore, Alaska or India, there is a healthy diet that is right for you. Take the time to find healthy foods that are also the foods you love.
Learn more about National Nutrition Month.
Nutrition research is a constantly moving target. We read that a nutrient is beneficial one day, and as soon as we get get used to taking it in our regimen the word comes out that too much is actually harmful. One year fats are the demon in our diets, the next year we should stay away from carbs. All of this information comes to us courtesy of various studies. It helps us to make decisions if we understand exactly how researchers are getting their results. Here is a look at some of the types of studies that are done in the field of nutrition.
Nutrition Research: Animal, Laboratory and Human
Studies done on animals in a laboratory setting can be closely controlled, and usually move along a lot faster than human studies because of the shorter life cycles. All sorts of things are done to animals, such as inducing disease, stimulating growth of tumors, force feeding or denying food, that could not ethically be done to humans. Perhaps these things shouldn’t ethically be done to animals either, but that is a whole other discussion. At any rate, the physiology of a rat is also very different from that of a human, so just we might not react the same way to a nutrient. A positive result in an animal study does not automatically mean results will be the same with humans.
Laboratory studies are done on a cellular level, in test tubes and petri dishes. This is called in vitro testing. When you isolate chemicals they may act differently than they do in the vast ecosystem of our human bodies, where they are affected by hormones, bacteria, lifestyles, environment, and all the influences that make us human and make each of us unique. So results from a test done in a lab can show a potential exists, but you need to test it on actual people before drawing conclusions.
A study that examines the occurrence of disease in human populations is called an epidemiological study. This is based on the same Latin root words that give us our term epidemic. Nutrition research falls into this category since nutrition is linked closely with disease, either from too much or too little of a particular food.
Observational Studies and Clinical Trials
All epidemiological studies can be grouped into one of two categories. First there are observational studies, which are passive research where subjects are observed but the researcher does not intervene to change their course of action. Some types of observational studies are
- case-control studies: These studies take a group of people who are already diagnosed with a health condition (the cases) and compare them to a group of people who are not diagnosed with that condition (the controls).
- cohort studies (prospective or retrospective): These studies follow a large group of people, who start out free of the particular disease being studied, for a long period of time, years and even decades. At the end of the study the results can show links between lifestyle and habits and certain health conditions. These can be forward looking, following the people into the future (prospective) or they can look back at a period of time (retrospective).
- cross-sectional studies: This is like slicing a study open and just looking at the cross-section, or one specific point in time. For example it might compare the disease status of a group of people and their levels of a certain nutrient, but only at that time. It doesn’t gather data from the past or follow them into the future.
- ecological studies: This type of study examines disease using a population as the unit of analysis rather than individuals. It may look at rates or patterns of disease, and may compare populations from different countries.
Secondly, there are experimental studies, also called clinical trials or intervention studies. In these active experiments, researchers divide the subjects into groups and apply treatments or interventions to one or more of the groups to see the effect. Some of the research you might see in this category includes
- randomized trials (or randomized controlled trials): In these studies a group of people is followed for a period of time, but researchers intervene to change certain behaviours of some of the subjects, so that they can be compared with others whose behaviour is not changed. People are assigned to the different study groups randomly, so that characteristics that might affect the experiment are spread out over the groups.
- cross-over trials: In this type of study at least two interventions (treatments) are given to the same individual, ideally in a randomized order across the study group so the order doesn’t affect the outcome.
- double blind trials: Neither the people being studied nor the people running the study know which groups are getting the intervention and which are the control group (getting a placebo). This way no one can influence the outcome subjectively.
Several of these characteristics might apply to the same trial. For example a double blind trial is usually randomized.
Pros and Cons of Observational Studies
It is usually less expensive to conduct an observational study, since it consists mainly of gathering information from people. On the other hand, you are relying on people’s memories and truthfulness. People who are sick, such as in a case-control study, may not be able to report things accurately. If you are conducting a cohort study, it may take years and years before you gather the data needed to draw a conclusion about a certain population. Studies with a shorter time frame, such as a cross-sectional study where the data can be used immediately, don’t give enough information to show a causal relationship between a nutrient and a disease. Generally these types of studies can show relationships that should undergo more rigorous clinical experiments.
Pros and Cons of Experimental Studies
Experimental studies can be set up to study very precise concepts, and researchers have much more control over their subjects, usually dictating exactly what they should eat or what medications they should take. Because of this the results are much more trustworthy. On the other hand, it is expensive to run a study like this. You need to recruit people who are willing to undergo changes to their diet and lifestyle that might be hard to keep up over the long term. Sometimes there are ethical reasons why a study can’t continue through to the end if the researchers find that it is harming the subjects. If the study is not a double blind, the subjects might be influenced by a placebo effect that will change the results of the study.
Other Factors in Epidemiological Studies
There are other factors you can look at when deciding whether or not a study is giving you valid information. How big was the population used in the study? Obviously the bigger a study group, the better the results. Who conducted the research and who is paying for the study? Is there a bias or a financial incentive for results to go a certain way? Expectations can change the behavior and perceptions of the people involved, and statistics can always be tweaked to show things in a different way.
How diverse was the study group? Did it consist of only one gender, age group or race? Did the study last long enough to allow relationships between the cause and the effect to develop?
Who is presenting the information about the study? Is it a company that wishes to sell you a vitamin or food product? Often people will latch onto an animal study or an observational study and use it to sell something that has never been properly tested.
These are a few of the questions and facts to keep in mind the next time you hear about the latest nutrition research.