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What is the “Mediterranean Diet”?

The past few years popular magazines and science journals alike have been abuzz with articles about a new fad called the “Mediterranean Diet” (If you’ve been out of the loop, see the Mayo clinic or the New York Times: “The Island Where People Forget to Die“, “Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke“, “When Diet Meets Delicious“, “Mediterranean Diet is Good for Your DNA“). But the Mefuterranean is a huge region encompassing a variety of culinary cultures – most of which we don’t often associate with “heart healthy”. So…

IMG_0570What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Simply put, the “Mediterranean Diet” is less a diet, per se, than a lifelong way of eating that emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein and healthy fats. There’s nothing very complicated about the diet: eat lots of foods high in fiber and other nutrients like local vegetables and legumes; consume healthy fats like olives, almonds and olive oil; substitute fruit for other sweets; emphasize low-cholesterol sources of protein like chicken and fish over red meat; avoid additives and preservatives; and enjoy the occasional glass of red wine. For more information delving into specifics, see this post on health.com.

Why Is It Good for Me?

fresh oranges dalyan

A fresh fruit stand on the highway outside Dalyan

The Mediterranean Diet probably isn’t (as some have claimed) a cure-all.  But it does promote overall well-being by providing your body with full nutrients and decreasing your intake of disease-causing foods such as refined sugar and artery-clogging saturated fats. Combined with regular exercise, studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease while promoting longer living.  Other studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to lead to a reduced risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease as well as the risk of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. (References here, here, here and here)

Following the Mediterranean Diet in Turkey

Turkish fruit sellers

Village women selling figs and olives outside Didim

When we conjure images of Turkish cuisine, what do we see?  Probably heavy red meats like shish kebabs and doner, plenty of bread, a fair amount of full-fat dairy and tantalizing sweets like baklava and dondurma.  But how a tourist tastes a new country is not necessarily representative of the way most residents eat day-in-and-day-out or the ingredients readily available in the grocery store. Whether stocking up your own kitchen or eating out, nutrient-dense whole foods in Turkey abound. Turkey is full of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as locally sourced, GMO-free products at reasonable prices.  While you can pick up your groceries at the local Carrefoure, most Turks in both town and city do their shopping at the local bazaars.  Many Turkish people tend to eat seasonally, with an emphasis on in-season local produce.  Due to the mild coastal climate and long growing seasons, this translates into consuming a great variety of different foods. Unless you live in a small town in the Anatolian hinterlands, it’s easy to find fresh produce and staples of the Mediterranean diet year-round.  Turkey’s produce is officially GMO-free, and there are a growing number of organic and free-range farms.  Compared to the west, it’s much less expensive to stock your fridge with locally-grown, additive-free fresh food. Here’s what you’ll probably see families eating in Turkey

Turkish breakfast

Part of a typical Turkish breakfast: tea, olives, salad, local honeys and jams, fresh cheese, and eggs on their way!

Breakfast: A typical Turkish breakfast includes a complete spread: jams, cheeses, eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and bread.  Most restaurants will also have omelets and menemen, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and green peppers.

Lunch: A traditional lunch might include a bowl of hearty lentil soup coupled with salad, mezeler (cold vegetable dishes with olive oil), cucumber and tomatoe salad, and crusty bread.  For a little more protein, go for fresh grilled fish or menemen.

Dinner: Dinner is often the day’s biggest meal, shared with friends or family. Dinner will often start with a light soup, followed by salad, mezeler, a starch or grain, and a source of protein. Grains like bulgar and barley, often thought of as ‘health foods’ in the west, are here common fare (see more on grains used in Turkish cooking here).

Dessert and Tea: Every meal and almost every visit in Turkey will be accompanied by a cup of black tea.  If you are visiting someone’s house as a guest, your tea will be accompanied by small dishes of cakes, dried fruits, and nuts.  Instead of sweets after dinner, many Turkish people drink tea and nibble on nuts and dried fruit, or bring out a plate of cut fruit.

Drinks: While raki is the Turkish national drink, there are plenty of vineyards producing local vintages as well. Moderate amounts of red wine are supposed to be good for your heart and overall health.

Going for Healthier Options

Like most countries in the west, Turkey does have a high obesity rate (currently 16.5% for men 29.4% for women).  It’s obvious that being surrounded by an abundance of healthy food doesn’t automatically make one healthier.  So here are a few minor changes you can make to follow a healthy and whole diet in Turkey:

  • Skip the sugar in your tea. The average adult should consume less than 60 grams of sugar in a day.  One sugar cube has 12 grams of sugar.  If you drink as much tea as the average Turk, that’s a lot of extra sugar.  Ask for a slice of lemon instead.
  • Revel in the fresh fish! IMG_1323Fish is an integral part of almost every restaurant’s menu; for those traveling to Istanbul or the Aegean, fresh fish is a must.  Most restaurants have daily dinner specials for 12-25 lira including meze (appetizers), salad, and the catch of the day.  Our favorite fish is çupra (gilt head sea bream) for it’s tender and flavorful white flesh. Eat with a side salad and a slice of lemon to bring out the fish’s full flavors.
  • Go for low fat or fat-free dairy. Dairy forms a central staple of Turkish cuisine – spreads of soft and hard cheese at breakfast, salty ayran, handchurned yogurt, and the sweet cream kaymak.  Thankfully, most dairy products are also available in reduced fat or no-fat form.  Look for the pink cups of ayran, or dairy labels that read yarım yağlı (half fat), az yağlı (low-fat) or yağsız (fat free).
  • Pass on the Kofte and Adana Kebabs.  These are high in fatty meat and kofte are cooked in oil.  If you’re hankering after red meat, go for Simit kebab (cooked with bulgar), Şiş kebab with vegetables,  Buğu kebabı or Testi kebab. 
  • Switch out the white bread.  Most Turkish bakeries have options with higher fiber, like whole wheat (tam buğday ekmek) and cracked wheat/whole meal (kepekli ekmek).
  • Ask for servis.  This means your fish or kofte will come on a plate with salad, instead of sandwiched in half a loaf of bread.  At more causal joints you may have to pay an extra lira for servis 
  • Go for almonds and fresh and dried fruit at tea. We know those sweets piled on trays at tea look tempting; reach instead for something more sustaining, like almonds, dried apricots and dates.
  • Quench your thirst with fresh juice instead of coke. Fresh fruit stands abound in
    Juice in ankara

    A juice stand in downtown Ankara

    both metropolises and up and down the coasts (and at every town in between) Even in the dead of winter downtown Ankara has dozens of stalls making fresh pressed carrot, orange, grapefruit and pomegranate juice for as little as 1.5 lira a cup. Most malls have fresh fruit juice stands as well.  If you like the strong flavor, şalgam, a salty beet-red drink made from fermented purple carrots, turnip and bulgar, is a refreshing alternative to soft drinks.  If you over-indulge in raki, you may find a glass of şalgam being imposed upon you as a [supposed] cure for hangovers.

Little Bazaars; Fresh Produce

First, take a virtual walk through two of Turkey’s outdoor bazaars with this beatifully crafted and illustrated traveler’s post: Refueling at Fethiye Markets.  Check out these bazaars over the summer for some fresh, locally-grown and low-priced produce:

Bodrum: The food bazaar is held in a different location every day of the week; Thursday is market day in Yalikova; Friday the food market is held in the Bodrum Market (pazar); if you want a trip back in time, Monday is  market day at the little town of Guvercinlik, 20 km north of Bodrum. See here for a full schedule. IMG_0940

Didim/Altinkum: If you have a car, head out to Akkoy and scoop up produce sold by the roadside straight from the fields.  Figs, olives, and preserves are all produced locally and sold at rock-bottom prices.  The Saturday Market has produce (along with everything else from clothing to household items).  If you want to get away from the summer tourists, you can also drive to Söke for an authentic bazaar experience. 

Fethiye: Farmer’s markets take place in different locations on different days; Tuesdays and Fridays are in the town center. Turkey’s for Life has a great bunch of posts about the Friday Market, Patlangıç Market, Çalış Market, and more. Interested in learning more about the push to put local produce on hotel tables?  Read about the Taste of Fethiye project here!  Taste of Fethiye also prints a Fethiye Village Driving Route to take you and your taste buds on a self-guided local culinary tour (PDF: Turkey_driving_route_booklet_opt).

Want fresh fish? Head to the Fethiye Fresh Fish Market.  This Fethiye Times post includes market information as well as English-Turkish names for dozens of varieties of local seafood.

Kusadasi: Find the bazaar on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. Tuesday markets are located on the street by the cemetery; Wednesday and Friday markets are on the same street, but opposite the main dolmus (minibus) stop at the city center. Food is fresh from the sea and the farms.

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