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NUTRITION: Mediterranean Diet tops list again

A fresh vegetable salad would be a nice meal for a Mediterranean Diet. Getty Images

Now in its ninth year, U.S. News & World Report revealed its annual list of best diets for 2019. The magazine gathers health and nutrition experts to research and categorize popular diets. For the first seven years, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) topped the list while the Mediterranean Diet was always runner up. In 2018, DASH and Mediterranean Diet tied for the top spot while this year the Mediterranean Diet topped the list.

Why do these two diets always top the list? The Mediterranean and DASH Diets have many similarities. Both of these diets do not require special foods and can be customized to fit an individual's tastes and cultural preferences.

The DASH Diet was designed to prevent and stop hypertension by encouraging consumption of nutrients that reduce blood pressure such as calcium, potassium and fiber. The core of the diet is fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. Avoid saturated fats, which are found in meat, high-fat daily and tropical oils such as coconut oil. Limit excess sugar by aiming for less than one serving of added sugar per day. A serving of sweets could be 1 tablespoon jam, ½ cup sorbet or 1 cup sweetened beverage such as lemonade. Try to limit sodium to less than 1,500 mg per day.

The Mediterranean Diet is designed to mimic how the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean eat, because these populations of people have lower instances of cancer and heart disease compared to Americans. Just like the DASH diet, the Mediterranean Diet's core is fruit, vegetables and whole grains. The Mediterranean Diet gives more specific guidelines for protein; consume fish at least twice a week; moderate portions of poultry, dairy and eggs; and consume red meat less than twice per month. Sweets fall into the same category as red meat and should be consumed only once or twice per month. The Mediterranean Diet also encourages more consumption of heart-health fats found in nuts and olive oil.

There are many aspects of these diets that are the same. We can examine both of these diets and take tips and techniques from both to improve our overall diet and health.

• At every meal, make sure at least half of your plate is filled with vegetables and fruits. Double the amount of vegetables in soup, stew and hotdish recipes. Make sure pizza and pasta dishes are filled with vegetables. Add extra vegetables to your lunchtime sandwich. Get creative with salads and use a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Carry fruits and vegetables along for snacks. Instead of a baked item for dessert try grilled fruit or a smoothie. Remember, frozen and canned count!

• Rethink your protein. Remember that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the foundation. Try to go vegetarian once or twice per week. If you do have meat, think of it more as a side dish or garnish, not the centerpiece. Use more plant-based proteins, such as beans and nuts. Add beans to salads, tacos, soups, stews and hotdishes. Make dips and spreads like hummus to have with sliced vegetables or on your sandwich. Sprinkle nuts on your morning cereal or to add a crunch to salads, soups, pastas and vegetables.

• Consume low-fat dairy regularly in moderate amounts. Low-fat dairy is a good source of protein, potassium and calcium. Have 1 cup of 1 percent or skim milk with a meal. Use yogurt in place of higher-fat items like sour cream and cream cheese.

• Make your grains whole. For breakfast, top yogurt with whole grain granola, toast whole grains bread or have oatmeal. For lunch and dinner, add grains like bulgur or barley to your salad, use whole grain bread or pita for your sandwiches, create pasta dishes using whole grain pasta, make a pizza with whole grain crust, and for a new side dish, try a rice pilaf or creamy polenta.

• Use herbs and spices to flavor your food instead of salt. Start with some garlic and onions, mix in herbs such as basil or oregano, and top your dish off with a dash of citrus juice or hot sauce.

• Switch to heart-healthy oils. Oils like olive oil and canola oil are comprised of monounsaturated fats. These fats can reduce our LDL "bad" cholesterol and may even help increase HDL "good" cholesterol. Reduce your use of saturated fats like butter and fatty meats.

Both the DASH Diet and Mediterranean Diets encourage lifestyle changes in addition to a healthy diet pattern. Be sure to get in physical activity and find ways to try manage positive mental health as well. Making small changes with the food you are already consuming can have lasting benefits.

Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at dietitian@slhduluth.com.

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