- The Mediterranean diet is a widely researched way of eating with many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, depression, arthritis, obesity, and infertility.
- This diet is rich in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and fish.
- Mediterranean-style side dishes are a great way to incorporate this diet into your holiday meal.
As you prepare for the holidays, you may be wondering how you can celebrate the season while still eating healthy.
Nutritionists suggest a great way to do this is by following a Mediterranean style of eating.
According to Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, author, speaker, and blogger at The Plant-Powered Dietitian, the Mediterranean diet “involves including lots of seasonal fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, moderate wine, lower intake of red meat, moderate intake of animal protein, more grains and seeds, and low use of highly-processed foods and sweets.”
“It’s the most widely-researched diet pattern on the planet,” Palmer said, “with a wide body of research linking it to multiple health benefits, including reduced risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, depression, arthritis, obesity, and fertility. “
Nutritionist and author Shereen Jegtvig, who teaches at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, said it’s a balanced diet as well. There are no foods groups that need to be eliminated in order to follow it, she adds.
If you’d like to incorporate a little Mediterranean flair to your next holiday dinner, Palmer and Jegtvig suggest adding some of the following healthy side dishes to your meal:
While it’s often eaten as an appetizer, Jegtvig suggests that hummus can also make a good side dish.
With chickpeas as its main ingredient, hummus is high in nutrients and fiber and it gets healthy fats from olive oil, says Jegtvig.
Research also suggests that eating hummus may help people better control their blood sugar and insulin as well as helping them avoid weight gain. It may also have a positive effect on heart health.
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).
MUFAs may reduce heart disease risk by reducing total and low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol. MUFAs may also help improve how your blood vessels function.
Some research also indicates that they could help those with type 2 diabetes by improving blood sugar and insulin levels.
With tomatoes, peppers, olives, feta cheese, and olive oil, this dish is full of nutrients and fiber too, says Jegtvig.
Tomatoes contain many important compounds related to health, including lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, vitamins E and C, folate, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and tannins.
Among the many health benefits associated with tomatoes are a reduced risk of inflammation, cancer, and diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
Bell peppers are a good source of vitamins A and C. These vitamins are important to health because they’re antioxidants.
When the body uses oxygen, it produce free radicals. Free radicals can damage cells, possibly leading to health problems like arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, helping to prevent these illnesses.
Feta cheese is a good source of calcium, according to Jegtvig.
Calcium is necessary for many functions in our bodies. It helps build strong bones. It plays a role in blood clotting and is necessary for muscle contractions, including the beating of the heart.
Olive oil and olives contain heart healthy MUFAs.
Both Jegtvig and Palmer suggest roasted vegetables as a healthy Mediterranean-style option.
“One of the key things about the Mediterranean diet,” said Palmer, is that it involves using a lot of seasonal vegetables.
Look around at what’s in season — squash, Brussels sprouts, root vegetables — and make these the focus of side dishes. Then pair them with healthy fats, like olive oil, nuts, herbs, and seasonings.
Jegtvig suggests that vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, tomato, bell pepper, and garlic are also very good choices. They’re low in calories and loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, she says.
Nutritional content will vary depending on which vegetables you choose. In general, however, vegetables have an excellent nutritional profile:
- They’re low in fat and calories.
- They have no cholesterol.
- They’re rich in nutrients like potassium, folate (folic acid), vitamin A, and vitamin C.
- They’re rich in fiber.
Among the many health benefits of vegetables are that they appear to be protective against heart disease and cancer, too.
Preparing your vegetables with olive oil and nuts will give you MUFAs and omega-3 fatty acids, which are also excellent for heart health.
Another key part of the Mediterranean diet is to make use of whole grains and seeds, Palmer said. “Find a way to include more side dishes made with grains, like quinoa, farro, brown rice, and beans, lentils, and dried peas.”
One possibility? Try spanakorizo. This Greek dish, with its rice and spinach, fits the bill. It includes both a healthy whole grain (when prepared with brown rice) and a leafy green vegetable.
According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, brown rice is a good source of minerals like selenium and magnesium.
Selenium plays a role in thyroid hormone production, antioxidant production, and immunity.
Magnesium also aids with muscle contractions and bone development.
Research indicates that increasing your consumption of whole grains like brown rice may reduce your cholesterol, too. It may also reduce your risk for stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. It may improve your gut health as well.
Spinach is a good source of vitamin K, which is important because of the role it plays in blood clotting.
It also contains important minerals like iron, potassium, and manganese, which helps your body make oxygen-carrying red blood cells and helps regulate brain and nerve function.
Palmer says offering desserts that are heavy in fresh, seasonal fruits like apples or pears is a great way to make your holiday meal healthy.
It also fits in with a Mediterranean diet.
One simple way to add fruits to your meal without a lot of added sugar is to roast them. Roasting caramelizes the natural sugars found in fruit, turning them into a sweet, thick syrup. You can also add a small amount of sugar or honey, as well as various herbs and spices, to bring out the natural sweetness of the fruit.
Fruits have a very good nutritional profile:
- They’re naturally low in fat, sodium, and calories.
- None of them contain cholesterol.
- They contain many nutrients that are often undereaten, such as potassium, fiber, vitamin C, and folate (folic acid).
- They’re rich in fiber.
Fruits can provide many benefits, including:
- healthy blood pressure
- reduced blood cholesterol
- healthy bowel function
- reduced risk of heart attack and stroke
- reduced cancer risk
Nuts are a great way to add some healthy fats from omega-3 fatty acids to your dessert.
You might also want to add a dollop of creamy Greek yogurt to your roasted fruit for an even more delicious and nutritious finish to your meal.
Yogurt is rich in calcium, phosphorus, and B vitamins. It’s also a good source of probiotics.
Probiotics support gut health and may play a role in helping certain conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and certain chronic inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.