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The Mediterranean Sea is bounded by a diverse group of countries, which include, in a culinary sense, three broad regions: North African (especially Morocco); eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey), and southern Europe (Italy, France, and Spain). What unites these diverse countries are climate and terrain: hot dry summers, cool winters, and dry light soil. From these terrestrial roots come a similarity of cuisines, utilizing vegetables which can be found in the dishes of all the countries: onions, garlic, and tomatoes are integral, coupled with olive oil; also eggplants, squashes, capsicum, mushrooms, cucumbers, artichokes, okra, and legumes ranging from lentils, chick peas, and fava beans in Egypt, to green beans in France and white kidney beans in Tuscany. Fresh herbs are also central to Mediterranean food: oregano, basil, rosemary, mint, dill, fennel, and cilantro. Shellfish, anchovies, and white-fleshed fish like sole, flounder, and grouper are common, as well as swordfish, monkfish, eel, squid and octopus. Pork, rabbit, and poultry, as well as lamb, are much more common than beef, for the terrain will not support large herds of bovines. Herds of sheep and goats also provide rich milk for feta cheese and yogurt.

The southern European Mediterranean diet captured the attention of health professionals in the mid to late twentieth century because people from this area tended to have fewer chronic conditions and live longer than other western people. Curious as to why this might be the case, scholars postulated that diet may be the cause. In general, the Mediterranean diet has very healthy proportions: about 50% carbohydrates; 30-35% fruits, vegetables and animal fats; and 15% protein. Dieticians have compiled a Mediterranean food pyramid to help the rest of us put together this healthy diet. It has as foundational daily staples: cereals and grains like bread, pasta, polenta, couscous, and potatoes; fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables; beans, legumes, and nuts; olive oil; and yogurt and cheese. This is supplemented by weekly fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, and sweets, while red meat is a much less common part of the diet. Butter, cream, and lard are notably absent, and wine is taken in moderation. Well, except for France, of course, but red wine taken in moderation daily promotes cardiac health, so the daily consumption of wine isn't a downside for them.

Note that olive oil is considered key to the Mediterranean diet for its health-giving properties as compared to other oils. Also important are moderation, balance, and variety, as well as small portions of food - at least from a North American perspective. And of course daily physical activity cannot be forgotten, either.

For a visual representation of the Mediterranean food pyramid, go to
www.oldwayspt.org/html/p_med.htm

For a sampling of the many discussions of why the Mediterranean diet is healthy, go to
www.mediterraneanonline.com/article1004.html
www.oznet.ksu.edu/ext_F&N/_Timely/medrdiet.htm
www.trincoll.edu/~jvillani/health.htm

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