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The Mediterranean Diet - Beans and Grains

Bring vegetables, beans, and grains to the center of the plate for a delicious, budget-wise, brain-healthy meal.

THINK OF THE WAY WE TYPICALLY picture a meal on our plate—a slab of steak or stack of chicken nuggets in the center, with accompaniments around the edges. Now think of shifting that image: Move vegetables to the middle, add grains and beans to fill you up, and then a little meat in the role of tasty condiment.

This approach to meals is at the heart of the traditional eating patterns of people living around the Mediterranean, and recent research has shown that the Mediterranean diet—more vegetables, grains, and beans; less meat; plenty of fish; olive oil; plus moderate alcohol—is correlated with lower incidence of developing Alzheimer’s, as well as the memory loss that precedes the disease.

This diet is a no-brainer (pardon the pun)—with no big-deal calculations or planning. In fact, if you take a gander at the diets recommended by such popular healthy-eating gurus as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Andrew Weil, the angles are the same. Meat is nowhere near the base of the diet. The bulk of a meal comes from fiber-filled complex carbs found at the bottom of the food pyramid—no matter if the goal is a healthy vascular system, extra-long life, a buzzing brain, or an inflammation-free body.

Good for the Pocketbook, Too. These meal changes won’t just help you to regulate your health. You may notice positive changes in your bank balance as well. Neither the fishermen and farmers of the Mediterranean, nor the subjects in the recent research, were cash-cow wealthy, but their less-meat eating style protected their cognitive functioning. Follow their brain-healthy diet, and you’ll be watching your wallet, as well.

A $10/lb. sirloin steak or $4/lb. chicken cutlets can’t match the price of a vegetable chili made with dried beans at barely $2/pound or $1.19 for canned. And a bowl of barley will fill you up just as well as a slice of lamb. Whole-wheat spaghetti and rich tomato herb sauce,with just 1/2 pound ground beef added, can make your mouth water as much as a burger—at less than a couple of bucks per serving. Add a side of garlic sauteed spinach, and you’ve got a real budget-minded Med meal. Even the most “exotic” grains and beans, such as quinoa, amaranth, black lentils, or “rice beans,” come in at less than a dollar a serving.

No Sacrifice in Taste—or Satisfaction. Give up the idea that you’ve got to take on an ascetic appetite or breadline taste. Across cuisines—Indian dals, Latin rice, beans, tortillas and tamales, Asian noodle, and rice-based meals all reflect authentic styles of budget eating. For the poorest folks, when pricy protein is used, if at all, it likely serves more like a seasoning than a center.

Cheaper cuts of meat can often be scraps cut in awkward shapes or less tender than steak, making them perfect for slow-cooked richly flavored stews to be served up in smaller spoonfuls on lots of plates, like a flavorful apex on the plant-based better-for-you base.

The real price concern, though, is always your health. Don’t make yourself nuts with an instant diet change. You don’t need to cut out your carnivorous ways immediately, or at all. Just begin incorporating more grains and beans into your meals. Without thinking, you won’t have room on your plate (or in your belly) for the huge steak. And if research proves right, your brain will continue to remember (good luck if you can say it fast): grains and beans, grains and beans, go for greens, grains, and beans.

Two Recipes to Try. Here (see links above left), we introduce two simple ways to add complex carbs into your meals.

No-fuss Easy White Beans with Tomatoes and Garlic comes from New York Times “Recipes For Health” columnist Martha Rose Shulman’s Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine. It can be made in minutes using ingredient right out of your pantry shelves.

Panzanella Di Farro, from Olives and Oranges, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox, is based on a Tuscan classic bargain meal that usually makes use of stale bread. If the name Jenkins seems familiar, that’s because she’s the daughter of Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. As an acclaimed chef herself, Sara Jenkins has brought the Med-style eating from her childhood kitchen to the tables of New York City’s best restaurants.

Tamara Holt is a writer, editor, and educator with special expertise in consumer food choices, organic and natural products, and creating an easy, fun, healthy lifestyle. She has produced dozens of food stories as the food editor of Redbook and Jewish Living magazines.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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