Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Mediterranean Diet never includes gelato!

If you explore the components of various healthful diets, you will certainly find the Mediterranean Diet among them. Greens, vegetables, beans & pulses, nuts, citrus fruits, fish, pasta, and olive oil are well-known staples of Mediterranean cuisine. All that sunshine and temperate weather encourage gardens and lots of fresh produce.

lovely surroundings warrant eating
lovely, healthy food
some red wine with that?
lunch with fresh veggies, olive oil, and pasta

This eating style makes headlines for its health benefits:
The Mediterranean Diet shown to ward off heart attack and stroke
The Mediterranean Diet enhances memory and mental acuity, and lowers risk of Alzheimers disease, etc
The Mediterranean Diet maintains bone mass in women
The Mediterranean Diet helps maintain lower cholesterol levels

The Mayo Clinic in the US states that the Mediterranean diet emphasizes:
  • Getting plenty of exercise – this is a key part of this “diet”
  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Drinking red wine in moderation ("optional")
  • Enjoying your meals with family and friends.

There isn’t, of course, a single Mediterranean diet – Greeks eat differently from Italians, who eat differently from the Spanish, Turks, Lebanese, and Tunisians – so the possibilities are endless.

The health benefits of these various cuisines stem from some of their common staple ingredients: a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds but low in saturated fats (red meats, sweets) provides thousands of micronutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can help protect against cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions, experts say.

The Dark Side

What the stories don’t tell you is that just inland from the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas is north-central Italy (you might start in Parma and Modena head south to Bologna and the mountain towns of Umbria, Le Marche, and Abruzzo).

These regions specialize in hams, cheeses, pastas such as ribbon-shaped tagliatelle or worm-like strozzapreti, and stuffed fresh egg pastas such as ravioli, tortellini or cappelletti, bolognese sauce, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and Bacio chocolates.

And then there is gelato, The Dark (not-so-) Secret of the Mediterranean Diet.

gelato: the secret weapon

Gelato, that Italian ice cream specialty, can ruin the best-laid plans for eating a Mediterranean Diet in the Mediterranean. But eating it is fun.

Looks skeptical, but fully appreciating this gelato
I can count ice cream among my top 2 food weaknesses (homemade chocolate chip cookies, preferably blondies, are the other, and the two go together nicely), so gelato is a huge treat.

Its flavors are intense because it is denser, less fluffy, and contains smaller amounts of fat (less cream more milk) and air than ice cream.

The temptation to try each new flavor is huge, as you can see below, and I maintain my high ground only by walking a lot through these hill towns (up, down, up, down...) and counting all those times I DON’T eat it (endless opportunities for Reverse Food Journaling!).

Nevertheless, now that I’m an adult and get to buy stuff myself, a visit to Italy equals visits to multiple gelaterias.

After all, when will I be back in town to have another, right?

And how can I understand what the heck zuppa inglese flavor is without trying it? (hint: it’s a funky Italian custard).

fruit, cream, or chocolate?   gelateria offerings in Assisi, central Italy

Suggested paths to eating more gelato with less calorie gain:

Walk. All over town. Most Italian towns you would visit as a tourist are full of history and art, and being on foot allows you instant access to inspect or enter an ancient wood or bronze doorway or hidden chapel or Medieval passageway.

holding up the archway on Via delle Volte in Ferrara
5th century mosaics at Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna

Enjoy a salad with local olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Parmesean cheese.

Don’t gorge on bread and pasta, so you can leave room for a gelato!

Eat Italian (or French), rather than the typically larger US portions.

Italian servings of tuna
and tortelloni (8 pieces)
US serving of steak, salad and potato
(heavy on the sour cream)

Share a gelato with a friend!


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