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This page was written and researched by Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS Family & Community Health Sciences Educator Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County kensle@njaes.rutgers.edu.

Eating a Mediterranean diet may lower your risk of a heart attack, stroke, and death by up to 30 percent, according to a highly publicized study done in Spain and published in The New England Journal of Medicine.  Help your heart and overall health by adding the foods highlighted in the study, which are staples of the Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean Diet: Nine Staple Foods

Olive Oil — The study participants’ main fat was olive oil—they ate 4 or more tablespoons of this oil daily, which is rich in monounsaturated fats. (Conversely, they ate less than 1 serving per day of saturated-fat-rich butter or cream.) Make olive oil your primary “fat” for cooking, salads, and baking.

Nuts — Study participants ate 3 or more servings of nuts (including peanuts) weekly. They were encouraged to eat a daily serving of mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts) for an afternoon snack (small is equal to 1/3 cup).  Remember that nuts are calorie-dense, so eat small amounts.  Sprinkle them on top of your favorite yogurt or a salad.

Fish — Mediterranean-diet followers ate 3-plus servings of fish or shellfish weekly. Aim to add fish of any kind; just don’t fry it. Bake or grill it instead. Eat salmon or tuna which are rich in heart-healthy, omega-3 fats, weekly.

Legumes — Study participants reported eating 3 or more servings of legumes each week. Legumes include beans, peas and lentils which are all good meat replacers and as a vegetarian source of protein. But they also can count as a vegetable because they deliver fiber and nutrients, such as folate and potassium that you would find in other vegetables.

Fresh Fruits — Diet followers consumed 3-plus fruit servings daily. If you’re going to drink 100 percent juice to increase your fruit intake, try and cap it at 6 ounces daily. Otherwise, add fresh, frozen or canned fruit, packed in its own juice, to your diet in many ways. Try adding it to a salad or oatmeal, top your yogurt with fruit or just snack on it plain.

Fresh Vegetables — Study participants reported eating 2 or more servings of vegetables each day along with at least one serving of raw vegetables or a salad. Try adding vegetables to an omelet or have a bowl of vegetable soup or a salad for lunch or dinner.

Sofrito — This is a sauce made with tomato and onion and often includes garlic and herbs. It is slowly simmered with olive oil and is typically used to season vegetables, pasta and rice. Mediterranean diet followers said they ate sofrito two or more times each week.

White Meat — In this Mediterranean diet study, subjects weren’t told how much meat to eat but were simply encouraged to eat white meat, instead of red meat, such as chicken or turkey breast instead of veal, pork, hamburger or sausage. And along those lines, participants reported eating less than one serving daily of red meat, hamburger or “meat product,” such as ham, sausage, etc.

Wine — Mediterranean-diet followers consume wine with meals. Study participants who habitually drank alcohol reported drinking seven (or more) glasses of red or white wine per week, or about one drink a day.

Try the Mediterranean eating plan for its heart healthy benefits.  Remember, taking small steps to add healthy foods to your diet will improve your health and wellness.  

More Simple Tips For Healthy Eating: Start Small

(scroll down to see the Mediterranean diet pyramid in English and Spanish)

A healthy diet is good for your overall health. It also can help you reach a healthy weight and stay there.  To improve your eating habits, it’s best to make small lifestyle changes that you can keep doing over time.

How can you change your eating habits? To eat a healthy diet, you may need to make some changes. Remember that you can change your eating habits a little bit at a time.

Small changes are easier to make and can lead to better health.

Here are some ways to make healthy changes in your eating habits:

  • Keep more fruits, low-fat dairy products (low-fat milk and low-fat yogurt), vegetables, and whole-grain foods at home and at work. Focus on adding healthy food to your diet, rather than just taking unhealthy foods away.
  • Try to eat a family meal every day at the kitchen or dining table. This will help you focus on eating healthy meals.
  • Buy a healthy-recipe book, and cook for yourself. Chew gum when you cook so you won’t be tempted to snack on the ingredients.
  • Pack a healthy lunch and snacks for work. This lets you have more control over what you eat.
  • Put your snacks on a plate instead of eating from the package. This helps you control how much you eat.
  • Don’t skip or delay meals, and be sure to schedule your snacks. If you ignore your feelings of hunger, you may end up eating too much or choosing an unhealthy snack. If you often feel too hungry, it can cause you to focus a lot on food.
  • Eat your meals with others when you can. Relax and enjoy your meals, and don’t eat too fast. Try to make healthy eating a pleasure, not a chore.
  • Drink water instead of high-sugary drinks like soda, ice teas, sports drinks and  high-sugar juice drinks.

The Many Benefits of Asparagus — with Recipe

(scroll down to see the recipe and the Mediterranean diet pyramid in English and Spanish)

Asparagus, officially known as Asparagus officinalis, is a member of the lily family.  This popular vegetable comes in a variety of colors, including green, white and purple. It’s used in dishes around the world, including frittatas, pastas and stir-fries. Asparagus is also low in calories and packed with essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Asparagus is an excellent source of vitamin K, an essential nutrient involved in blood clotting and bone health.  In addition, asparagus is high in folate, a nutrient that is vital for a healthy pregnancy and many important processes in the body, including cell growth and DNA formation. Asparagus is a low-calorie vegetable that is an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, especially folate and vitamins A, C and K.

A Good Source of Antioxidants

Antioxidants are compounds that help protect your cells from the harmful effects of free radicals and oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress contributes to aging, chronic inflammation and many diseases, including cancer.

Asparagus, like other green vegetables, is high in antioxidants. These include vitamin E, vitamin C and glutathione, as well as, various flavonoids and polyphenols  Asparagus is particularly high in the flavonoids; quercetin, isorhamnetin and kaempferol.  These substances have been found to have blood pressure-lowering, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anticancer effects in a number of human, test-tube and animal studies. Purple asparagus contains powerful pigments called anthocyanins, which give the vegetable its vibrant color and have antioxidant effects in the body as well.   In fact, increasing anthocyanin intake has been shown to reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and heart disease.  Eating asparagus along with other fruits and vegetables can provide your body with a range of healthy nutrients including antioxidants that promote good health. 

A Vegetable that Can Improve Digestive Health

Dietary fiber is essential for good digestive health. Just half a cup of asparagus contains 1.8 grams of fiber which is 7% of your daily needs. Studies suggest that a diet high in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Asparagus is particularly high in insoluble fiber which adds bulk to your stool and supports regular bowel movements. Asparagus also contains a small amount of soluble fiber which dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract.  Soluble fiber feeds the friendly bacteria in the gut, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.  Increasing the number of  beneficial bacteria in the gut, plays a role in strengthening the immune system and producing essential nutrients like vitamins B12 and K.  As a good source of fiber, asparagus promotes regularity and digestive health and may help reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Folic Acid Helps Support a Healthy Pregnancy

Asparagus is an excellent source of folate, also known as folic acid.  Just a half cup of asparagus provides adults with 34% of their daily folate needs and pregnant women with 22% of their daily needs.  Folate is an essential nutrient that helps form red blood cells and produce DNA for healthy growth and development.  It is especially important during the early stages of pregnancy to ensure the healthy development of the baby.  Getting enough folate from sources like asparagus, green leafy vegetables and fruit can protect against neural tube defects, including spina bifida.

Neural tube defects can lead to a range of complications from learning difficulties to a lack of bowel and bladder control to physical disabilities. In fact, adequate folate is so vital during pre-pregnancy and early pregnancy that folate supplements are recommended to ensure women meet their requirements. Asparagus is high in folate which helps reduce the risk of neural tube defects during pregnancy.

Potassium Helps to Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure affects more than 1.3 billion people worldwide and is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.  Research suggests that increasing potassium intake while reducing salt intake is an effective way to lower high blood pressure.  Potassium lowers blood pressure in two ways: by relaxing the walls of blood vessels and excreting excess salt through urine. Asparagus is a good source of potassium, providing 6% of your daily requirement in a half-cup serving.

What’s more, research in rats with high blood pressure suggests that asparagus may have other blood pressure-lowering properties. In one study, rats were fed either a diet with 5% asparagus or a standard diet without asparagus.  After 10 weeks, the rats on the asparagus diet had 17% lower blood pressure than the rats on the standard diet.  Researchers believed this effect was due to an active compound in asparagus that causes blood vessels to dilate. However, human studies are needed to determine whether this active compound has the same effect in humans. In any case, eating more potassium-rich vegetables, such as asparagus, is a great way to help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range.

Veggies Can Help You Lose Weight

Currently, no studies have tested the effects of asparagus on weight loss.  However, it has a number of properties that could potentially help you lose weight. First, it’s very low in calories, with only 20 calories in half a cup. This means you can eat a lot of asparagus without taking in a lot of calories.  Furthermore, asparagus is about 94% water. Research suggests that consuming low-calorie, water-rich foods is associated with weight loss.  Asparagus is also rich in fiber, which has been linked to lower body weight and weight loss. Asparagus has a number of features that make it a weight-loss friendly food. It’s low in calories, high in water and rich in fiber.

Asparagus is Easy to Add to Your Diet

In addition to being nutritious, asparagus is delicious and easy to incorporate into your diet.  It can be cooked in a variety of ways, including boiling, grilling, steaming, roasting and sautéing. You can purchase it fresh, frozen or canned. Asparagus can be used in a number of dishes like salads, stir-fries, frittatas, omelets and pastas, and it makes an excellent side dish. It’s extremely affordable and widely available at most grocery stores and farm markets.  When shopping for fresh asparagus, look for firm stems and tight, closed tips. 

Roasted Asparagus With Pecans

25 min·Yield: 4

Ingredients:

1 bunch asparagus

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Pinch of Salt

1 cup pecan halves, chopped

Method:

1) Wash asparagus and pat dry with paper towel.

2) Place in plastic bag with olive oil, coat well. Chop pecans.

3) Place asparagus on baking sheet and sprinkle pecans on top.

4)  Roast in 450 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or when asparagus is tender but not mushy.

Recipe from Karen Ensle’s Collection

Asparagus is low in calories but boasts an impressive nutrient profile.

In fact, just half a cup of cooked asparagus contains:

Calories: 20

Protein: 2.2 grams

Fat: 0.2 grams

Fiber: 1.8 grams

Vitamin C: 12% of the RDI

Vitamin A: 18% of the RDI

Vitamin K: 57% of the RDI

Folate: 34% of the RDI

Potassium: 6% of the RDI

Phosphorous: 5% of the RDI

Vitamin E: 7% of the RDI