AHA News: What Happens When You Grow Up on the Mediterranean Diet? She Knows Firsthand

MONDAY, March 13, 2023 (American Heart Association News) — You can find health advice almost anywhere these days. But finding reliable information and figuring out how to apply it can be overwhelming.

So to help sort things out, American Heart Association News is launching “The Experts Say” as a new series where specialists tell us how they apply what they’ve learned to their own lives.

Today’s expert is Naima Moustaid-Moussa, Horn Distinguished Professor of Nutritional Sciences and director of the Obesity Research Institute at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She talked about how her eating habits are shaped both by the flavorful foods she ate growing up and what she’s learned as a scientist. Here are highlights from the conversation.

Is there a guiding principle behind what you eat?

There are two. One is culturally guided, and one is science-based.

I grew up in Morocco. We mostly ate fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. We’d go to the market and buy the fish. We always cooked with olive oil or argan oil. So I grew up eating what we call the Mediterranean diet. We didn’t know it was called a Mediterranean diet at that time. It was just what we ate.

As I grew up, went to grad school in France and came to the U.S., I got more into science. And what we see is that if you’re eating your fiber, your fruits, your vegetables, it will provide much of the vitamins and minerals that help promote a healthy lifestyle.

For example, I’ve always liked fish, even at a younger age, but knowing data on fish oil, I eat even more, and I made sure when my children were at home to provide diets containing fish and other nutrient-dense foods.

Especially prior to the pandemic, my husband and I have had parties for our lab and cook things we study. I do actually eat the foods we study. For example, I didn’t eat tart cherries specifically when I was in Morocco, but I’ve been eating them more and looking for them when I shop since we’ve been doing research on them.

Tell us more about how where you grew up influences your food choices.

My parents did not have any education at all, but they have always insisted not only on us getting education, but also eating healthy. It was important to them that we ate fresh fruits and vegetables, and to not overeat. My father is 100 years old now. While he may have inherited some great genes, he was also physically active most of his life and was eating balanced diets.

The only canned food I had growing up was tomato paste. I’m not saying that all canned food is bad; as some canned veggies or fruits are great alternative for someone who cannot access readily fresh produce. But that’s the only thing that was canned.

In most of our cooking we use ginger, coriander, parsley and saffron. In some, we use cumin as well. When you use this mixture, you don’t need a lot of salt because you really have flavor and good taste.

Walk us through what you might eat in a typical day.

I’m a very-early-morning person. I wake up at 5 o’clock, sometimes earlier, and may have coffee and get a workout done before breakfast. Sometimes, I have breakfast first.

Breakfast is often a mix of Moroccan and Syrian foods (my husband is Syrian.) We use a spice mix called za’atar. It’s basically a mix of thyme and some other herbs and roasted sesame seeds. We use that with olive oil and also fat-free Greek yogurt (we call it labneh) as a dip. We eat it with whole-wheat pita bread. And I would have on the side some olives – not too many, because they can be very salty. And then we have some cucumbers, some tomatoes and sometimes arugula or lettuce with it. Sometimes we would add a couple of eggs as well, cooked plain or scrambled in olive oil and spices.

I usually have a light lunch, like a salad. I bring snacks with me. I like dried mangoes, dried figs, or fresh fruits, or dried vegetables. Sometimes, I take a walk around campus and grab a light lunch close by if I did not bring it from home.

My children are grown now and in college or working, but we used to have a family dinner with the kids. We would always have protein – fish is a common one, or lean beef or chicken. We would have rice or bread, and a salad and other cooked veggies on the side.

My husband is an exceptional cook and would do most of the cooking. As an example of a side dish, he would brush okra with olive oil and put it in an air fryer, then make fresh tomato sauce and mix it together with spices to add flavor. He also makes Syrian salads such as tabbouleh.

Or we would have couscous, especially for parties. It is called “seven vegetable dish,” made with eggplant, turnip, Brussel sprouts, carrots, tomatoes, squash and yellow and green zucchini, mixed with chickpeas. It’s made in a double boiler. You have the vegetables in the bottom part, with the spices mentioned above plus fresh parsley and coriander, and tomato sauce. Then at the top, you steam the couscous over the vegetables. Sometimes we cook it with lamb or beef in addition to the veggies.

One dish I love is roasted saffron chicken. We use a lot of saffron, and saffron has a lot of health benefits.

I like desserts too, but mostly for the weekend or special occasions. We make or buy baklava filled with pistachios, walnuts or dates.

If someone wants to change their eating habits, what do you recommend?

Sometimes it’s just portion size. That is a good place to start. Because even if you’re eating healthy, but eating too much of everything, that’s not good either.

Reduce a little at a time. Maybe rather than using big plates that we all use in the U.S., start with smaller plates. Then you can fit less food. One can also substitute cooking methods. Like instead of frying, you can bake or use an air fryer with small amounts of olive oil. This significantly reduces the fat calories.

What’s your most essential nutrition advice?

A person has to really be convinced they want to make changes and understand why this is good for their own health. If they’re not ready for it, no matter what you tell them, it’s not going to happen. Family and friends’ support is also important.

Once you are convinced that you want to change the way you eat, then it is important to set realistic goals and do it in small steps, while seeking both medical and dietitian advice, as every person may have different needs.

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved.

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News