Making the Mediterranean diet work in the Midwest

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2013 - 2:14 PM

Minnesotans can make some simple substitutions for a localized version of the Mediterranean way of eating.

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Olive oil. Fruits and vegetables. Legumes. Nuts. Fish. And wine, plenty of wine, with meals.

Now that’s a diet.

The results from the recently published study of the Mediterranean diet will send many Minnesotans to the grocery store in search of these healthful ingredients, some of which clearly are not local ingredients. What to do if you want to define your dinner table by the local offerings?

Remember that this study was conducted in Spain. Sofrito — a Spanish variation of a vegetable mixture with tomatoes, pepper, garlic and onion, often presented as a condiment — was served for many of the meals. You can do something comparable in Minnesota with homemade salsa or homemade ketchup-like sauces, or even serving sides of tomato soup. It’s the vegetables that count, not the exact dish.

Then there’s the olive oil — and the lack of olive trees in Minnesota. Canola oil serves as a good, healthy substitute for Midwestern cooking. “I prefer canola oil for most of my cooking because it’s local and it tastes good. It is mostly monounsaturated like olive oil, is even less saturated and has way more omega-3s than extra-virgin olive oil,” said Bea Krinke, adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and a registered dietitian who does the nutrition analyses for the Star Tribune. “I keep the EVOO [extra-virgin olive oil] for salads and dips where the flavor shines.” Cooking with olive oil destroys its antioxidants; canola’s higher smoking point, better suited for high-temperature cooking, makes it a better choice.

The reason canola hasn’t made the breakout news that it’s so good? Canola oil was formerly called rapeseed oil (the word “rape” in rapeseed is derived from the Latin rapum, which means turnip, which is part of its biological family). The Canadian seed-oil industry, which developed the oil in the early 1970s, renamed it (canola comes from “Canadian oil, low acid). Then there’s the GM issue (genetically modified). Most canola seeds are genetically modified to be tolerant of herbicide, an issue that may be unacceptable for some consumers.

Whatever the oil, keep in mind that the Mediterranean diet is not for weight loss; it’s for heart health. The ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) of olive oil daily that was used in the study contains 480 calories.

As for legumes (those beans, dried peas and lentils) and nuts, they are available in the Midwest, including many heirloom varieties. Local fish variety is more limited here, of course.

Then there’s the Minnesota connection to the Mediterranean diet. In the 1950s, Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota conducted what was known as the Seven Countries Study, prompted initially by the observation that American business executives had high rates of heart disease.

Noting that there were more people in southern Italy age 100 or older than anywhere else in the world, he hypothesized that a Mediterranean-style diet low in animal fat would protect against heart disease. He later moved to Italy and, in 2004, died a few months before his 101st birthday.

 

Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.

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