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The benefits of enjoying the healthy Mediterranean diet

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Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 1:38 am, Mon May 19, 2014.

(BPT) - With warmer weather, more people turn to fun outdoor activities, especially after a long cold winter. Diet and exercise are the key ingredients of a healthy lifestyle, and fresh salads and other summertime delicacies abound.

One particularly healthful diet trend is the Mediterranean diet, so named after the tastes and habits of the people living around the Mediterranean Sea. People in Europe – especially those in Spain, Italy and Greece – generally are healthier than Americans. One often-cited reason is their diet which, it turns out, is very high in salt.

Olives, for example, can only be consumed if they're soaked in salty brine for weeks. Feta cheese is cured and stored in salt brine. Capers, anchovies, codfish and roe are all Mediterranean staples routinely packed in salt. The breads, pastries and sauces of the Mediterranean are all high in salt. Greek taramosalata is made from salted codfish roe, while tzatziki is made from salted, fresh cucumbers that are drained and added to yogurt; North African baba ghanoush is made of roasted eggplant, blended with tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and lots of salt. This doesn’t even include all the famous salt-cured meats such as jamon serrano, prosciutto, salami and various sausages.

Olive oil is the anchor of the Mediterranean diet. No other natural oil has as much monounsaturated fat. When drizzled on salads and vegetables or grilled fish, it adds a pleasing aroma and texture. But olive oil by itself is somewhat bland and is always accompanied by liberal amounts of salt. Virgin olive oil, so cherished for making salads, is slightly bitter because of all the unique antioxidants it contains, so salt is especially important for improving its taste.

Yet, the people of the Mediterranean, who enjoy all these foods, have the world's best cardiovascular health. The diet is so healthy that the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) used it as a model in its famous DASH Study (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which confirmed that the Mediterranean/DASH diet was healthier than the typical American diet and effectively reduced blood pressure.

Americans who believe they need to follow a low-salt diet may hesitate to explore the Mediterranean diet, or may try to reduce the amount of salt inherent in it. Before turning your back on the Mediterranean diet and all its proven health benefits, discuss the option with your doctor. The Mediterranean diet has proven its worth for centuries.

To help you get started with a healthy Mediterranean meal, try the following recipe:

North African Salad

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1/4 cup

2 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced

1 pound box Israeli couscous (or any tiny pasta such as ziti)

3 cups chicken stock

2 lemons, juiced

1 lemon, zested

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1/3 cup dried chopped dates

1/4 cup slivered almonds or pistachios, toasted

Directions:

In a medium saucepan, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for one minute. Add the couscous and toast until lightly browned, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Carefully add the stock, and the juice of 1 lemon and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the couscous is tender, but still firm or al dente, stirring occasionally, about 7 to 9 minutes. Drain the couscous.

In a large bowl, toss the cooked couscous with the remaining olive oil, remaining lemon juice, zest, salt and pepper and let cool. Once the couscous is room temperature, add the fresh herbs, dried dates and almonds/pistachios. Toss well and serve.

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