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How The Mediterranean Lifestyle Can Boost Your Health

12/10/2015 04:43 EST | Updated 12/10/2016 05:12 EST
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One of the world's healthiest diet patterns is the Mediterranean diet. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. People eating this way are also less likely to get Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

What is it that makes the Mediterranean Diet so healthy? It's quite the list. The focus is on vegetables, fruit, whole grains and heart-healthy fats, particularly olive oil and omega-3s from fish. Meat tends to be in smaller portions rather than the focus of meals. People also eat more fresh food and fewer processed foods, making the diet much lower than the standard North American diet when it comes to sodium, trans fat, saturated fat and added sugars. Take a look at this eating pattern and it may not surprise you that it's linked to excellent health.

But are the health-promoting benefits from the food alone?

Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra believes it's the overall lifestyle and not just the food we should be emulating. He says:

"There is no true Mediterranean Diet. There never has been. The true secrets of Mediterranean longevity certainly include food, but there are lifestyle factors we have left behind."

What are these lifestyle factors he's talking about?

They definitely include the nutrition guidelines above, but often forgotten are moderate exercise, spending time outdoors in the sun and socializing with family and friends. I would add that it's not just the food but the way it's eaten: slowly over several hours with family rather than scarfed down in the car or at our desks.

Here are some ways you can promote your health and wellness by incorporating some of the Mediterranean lifestyle into your gatherings, big and small.

1. Serve family style

Instead of plating individual dishes for each of your guests, bring your meal to the table in large platters, so your guests can serve themselves. This allows individuals to take as much or as little as they'd like and keeps the meal interactive.

By letting people put food on their own plates, you avoid the pressure of plating a large portion and having your guest feel they have to clean their plate to please you. There may be foods that they want more of or less of, and let them fill their plate based on their own hunger and nutritional needs and goals.

Help your guests make vegetables half of their plate by serving beautiful platters filled with roasted vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, asparagus, fennel and root vegetables such as beets, rutabaga, celery root and turnip. Include a green salad and put extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table so guests can add as much or as little as they'd like.

2. Don't forget the wine!

Wine is arguably one of the most lauded parts of the Mediterranean diet. What would Mediterranean be without wine "Italians consume about 10 gallons of wine per person per year," says Beppe D'Andrea, spokesperson for Ruffino wines. "Wine in the Italian culture is seen as sustenance."

Red wine is rich in flavonoids, compounds that help lower inflammation and may have heart health benefits.

Even so, remember to sip slowly and savour your wine. Moderation is key! It's recommended that men enjoy up to two standard drinks a day and women up to one drink a day. A standard glass of wine is 5 oz.

Wine may be even healthier for people who are active, so be sure to get moving! In one study, people who exercised twice a week and drank 1 glass of wine a day for a year had improvements in their cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease. Both red and white wine showed similar benefits.

3. Take time to savour

The Mediterranean lifestyle is all about taking time to enjoy your food and wine with family and friends. Meals often take hours rather than minutes as they do in North America.

We've all heard from our grandparents that eating slowly helps improve digestion. It may also be helpful in preventing and managing obesity by causing us to eat less. A recent study in obese women found that when the women ate a meal over 40 minutes, their metabolism was higher after the meal compared to when the women ate the same meal in 10 minutes. Eating the meal more slowly also led to higher levels of adiponectin, a hormone that helps you feel full.

It takes the brain 20 minutes to recognize when you're full, so scarfing down your food too quickly means you'll eat past the point of fullness to discomfort. Put down your fork between bites, tell a story and listen to the stories of others at the table. Making a meal last isn't only more fun -- now you have health reasons to try it!

4. Go for an after-dinner stroll

It's been all over the news this past year: sitting is the new smoking. Spending most of our days sitting is linked to a higher risk of a host of chronic diseases and health problems, including obesity, heart disease, sleep, and psychological disorders.

While I'm not suggesting you take away the dinner table and make everyone stand, find time during your gathering to get up and get moving. When everyone is finished eating, clear the plates, let them soak in the sink, and then enjoy a walk together.

"Italians often go for a passeggiata -- a leisurely stroll -- after lunch or dinner," Beppe says. "It's a social ritual that brings multiple generations together in the community."

If your guests aren't up for a walk outdoors, turn up the music and start an impromptu dance party! The wine certainly helps with this...

Do you have any Mediterranean diet or lifestyle tips you think other people could use? Share them on Twitter or in the comments below!

Disclosure: Christy is an ambassador for Ruffino wines.

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