Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, protein-rich legumes, fish and whole grains with moderate amounts of wine and red meat. The flavors are rich, and the health benefits for people choosing a Mediterranean diet, one of the world's healthiest, are hard to ignore—they are less likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol or become obese. If you're trying to eat foods that are better for your heart, start with these nine healthy ingredients of Mediterranean cooking.
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1. Broccoli Rabe
Pictured Recipe: Broccoli Rabe with Olives & Garlic
To be Italian is to appreciate dark leafy vegetables, especially this earthily bitter brassica that pairs beautifully with bold ingredients like sausage, anchovy and hot pepper. Like other cabbage family members it's a nutrition superstar, providing plenty of vitamin C, potassium, calcium and fiber as well as carotenoids and cancer-fighting indoles and isothiocyanates.
Pictured Recipe: Mediterranean Chickpea Quinoa Bowl
Eaten daily, combined with grains and starches, beans provide high-quality protein along with folate, calcium, iron and zinc. They also offer benefits like healthy, filling doses of fiber (both soluble and insoluble), phytates and phytosterols; studies suggest beans may help manage diabetes, prevent colon cancer and reduce heart disease risk.
Pictured Recipe: One-Skillet Salmon with Fennel & Sun-Dried Tomato Couscous
Traditionally unrefined grains (pasta, bread, barley, couscous) are the base of most Mediterranean diets. Leaving the grains whole lowers their glycemic index, so they are digested more slowly and produce gentler rises in glucose and insulin than refined versions; they also retain all their fiber, magnesium, vitamin E and other antioxidant phytochemicals. Diets rich in whole grains may protect against heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Pictured Recipe: Hasselback Eggplant Parmesan
Beloved for its toothsome texture and neutral flavor that takes up sauces beautifully, eggplant gives meaty satisfaction to a cuisine in which meat traditionally made rare appearances. While not a nutritional powerhouse, eggplant contains some fiber and potassium; chlorogenic acid, a compound concentrated in eggplant skin, may have antiviral and cancer-fighting properties.
Pictured Recipe: Peach & Roasted Beet Salad with Hazelnut-Yogurt Dressing
Nut trees are almost as common as olive trees in Italy. Nuts are savored as snacks, ground into sauces and sprinkled on salads. They're loaded with heart-friendly monounsaturated fat; they're also rich sources of protein, fiber, vitamin E, folate, calcium and magnesium. Nut protein is also high in arginine, an amino acid that helps maintain healthy blood vessels.
6. Olive Oil
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Summer Vegetables with Shallot-Herb Vinaigrette
Prized since antiquity (original Olympic winners were awarded jugs of it), olive oil is imperative in Mediterranean cookery, especially when it comes to preparing vegetables. Rich in monounsaturated fat and (in extra-virgin types) antioxidant polyphenols; many believe its wide use throughout the Mediterranean explains much of that region's low heart disease rates.
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Pictured Recipe: Chicken Sausage and Peppers
Fresh, roasted or dried and ground into complex sauces and pastes, peppers add color to Mediterranean dishes. And good nutrition: all types are rich in vitamins A and C, fiber, folate, beta carotene and vitamin K. Red peppers also deliver lycopene, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin—protective against macular degeneration.
Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Garlic Shrimp over Orzo with Zucchini
Wherever Mediterraneans live close to the sea, seafood is a staple protein in their diets; any and all kinds of shellfish and fish are celebrated, often several in the same dish. While fattier types like tuna supply heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, lean specimens like shrimp, squid and sea bass provide ample protein, niacin and selenium.
Pictured Recipe: One-Pan Chicken Parmesan Pasta
It's hard to believe these now-ubiquitous orbs weren't native to the Mediterranean region (grazie, Columbus); they're staples in every cook's larder, fresh, canned and in paste form. Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C and lycopene, a heart-protective antioxidant that may also help prevent some cancers (particularly prostate). Plus they're versatile enough to enjoy every day.
Watch: How to Make Mediterranean Chickpea & Quinoa Bowls