When it comes to cookouts and other summer get-togethers, it’s hard to resist not-so-healthy food choices such as burgers, fries and milkshakes. But there’s a way to enjoy summer treats while eating food that is not only delicious but could help you lose or maintain weight and even boost your health.
It’s the Mediterranean diet — and it isn’t a diet at all, at least not the kind of restrictive-calorie and carb-counting diets many of us have tried (and usually given up on).
In fact, it’s an eating style centered around Mediterranean-type cuisine, featuring:
- An abundance of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds).
- Olive oil.
- Dairy products in low to moderate amounts (yogurts and cheeses).
- Fish and poultry in moderate amounts.
- Rarely, red meat.
- Wine in low to moderate amounts.
Numerous studies have shown this style of eating has numerous health benefits, including lowering the risk of depression, obesity, heart disease, certain cancers and the prediabetes condition known as metabolic syndrome. In fact, a large study of more than ½ million people from 10 countries, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, concluded the Mediterranean eating pattern decreased death rates from all causes and appeared to boost longevity.
With the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available this time of year, summer is the perfect season to try the Mediterranean diet. Synergy talked to registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified wellness coach Julie Schwartz, RDN, for advice on transforming summer favorites into Mediterranean-style, healthier meals.
“It’s not challenging to add touches of the Mediterranean plan to any meal, but it’s especially easy this time of year,” says Schwartz, founder of NutriWell Coaching in Tampa Bay, Florida. “Instead of the typical burger and hot dogs, try grilling fish such as salmon, trout, tuna, herring and mackerel, and keep portions at approximately 4 ounces.”
Consider grilling chicken instead of beef at your cookouts, too. But if you want to stick with beef burgers, Schwartz advises using 4 ounces of lean cuts — then pile on healthy toppings.
“Choose small, hearty whole-grain buns or serve whole-wheat bread on the side,” she suggests. “Top your burger with loads of sliced onions, avocado and tomato and dark leafy lettuce. And have a salad that includes lots of summer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and carrots. Just add a splash of olive oil and sprinkle some olives on top.”
There are plenty of other healthy Mediterranean-style options for quick and easy summer side dishes, appetizers and more.
“Skewer chunks of peppers, onions and tomatoes, then grill and serve as a scrumptious side dish,” Schwartz suggests.
Fill a bowl with Schwartz’s recipe for a colorful bean and vegetable salad: Mix a small bag of frozen corn (or the equivalent in fresh corn, removed from the cob), 2 large diced tomatoes, 1 can of black beans (rinsed and drained), ½ small can of diced green chilies, a bunch of chopped green onions, and fresh lime juice to taste.
Forget pretzels, potato chips and dip as summer cookout appetizers and snacks. Instead, consider healthier Mediterranean alternatives such as crunchy nuts and strips of peppers, carrots and sugar snap peas that can be dipped in hummus. It’s also easy to make homemade guacamole, Schwartz points out. Just mash a peeled avocado with some garlic, and add a touch of tomato and cilantro or a few hot peppers, if desired. Squeeze fresh lime into the mix for flavor and to keep the green guacamole from turning brown.
Another easy appetizer recipe: Cut a fresh loaf of whole-grain bread into 1-inch-thick slices. Then toast and top the slices with white beans mixed with a touch of garlic.
“Finish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and serve on a bed of arugula or butter lettuce,” Schwartz says.
For those who drink alcohol, it’s easy to down too many beers or sweet mixed drinks on a hot day at a summer picnic or party. Wine, especially red wine, is a part of the Mediterranean style, but not in large quantities.
“The amount is limited to about 5 ounces a day — far less than the amount the average American tends to pour into a wine glass,” Schwartz notes. “For those who drink, wine spritzers made with a dash of wine added to sparkling water are a way to add small amounts of wine in a refreshing beverage to meals.”
You don’t have to give up desserts when you eat the Mediterranean way — and the options are sweet and healthy.
“A big part of the Mediterranean plan is adding more fruit to your diet and this is the time of year when there’s a huge choice of delicious fruit to try,” Schwartz says.
“Think about ending your meal with an ounce or 2 of flavorful cheese and melon slices or a beautiful bowl of mixed berries topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon,” she notes. “Or choose any fruit that you enjoy. Presentation is the key to taking fruit from healthy to fabulous in desserts that will appeal to kids and adults.”