Here are five lessons I took with me about how to eat healthy.
Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

I didn’t really understand how to be a healthy eater until I tried the Mediterranean diet—by actually living in the Mediterranean—specifically in Israel, on the sea’s easternmost coast. It completely changed the way I look at food.

I came back with a new understanding: In Israel, food isn’t simply used as a comfort, distraction, or accompaniment to television. People eat to nourish their bodies. The reason every diet I had tried previously didn’t work was because it wasn’t real. Fad diets don’t work because they only address one small part of the problem. Eating healthy is an entire lifestyle change. But once you make it, it’s not hard to keep on a positive eating path.

There’s a lot more to this story than simply saying I learned to be healthier just by eating how those in the Mediterranean eat. But I was able to take the things I learned while abroad, and bring it back with me to my life in America. Here are five habits I learned while living abroad, and how I did (and you can) incorporate them into a new, healthier lifestyle.

Veggies Are Meant to Shine

This is by far the most important thing I learned. My meals growing up were focused on pasta or meat, with side dishes to simply accompany the main event. But in the Mediterranean, vegetables take center stage in every meal.

One of the most challenging habits to break was my love of Western breakfast foods. Cereal, pancakes, waffles, and French toast rarely made an appearance in Israel. Breakfast is often a simple salad, sometimes accompanied by eggs, bread, or cheese. Today, I try to focus on more veggie-forward morning meals like Grapefruit, Avocado and Prosciutto Breakfast Salad, or a Grilled Vegetable Frittata.

Another challenge was accepting vegetables as a main dish for lunch and dinner, and relegating proteins and grains to the sides. Vegetable-centered meals are often served with sides of hummus, chicken shawarma, or pita bread.

These are usually accompanied by side salads dressed simply: Olive oil, salt, pepper, and a side of tahini instead of the heavy dressings I was used to (and that mask the flavor of the produce).

"Protein" Doesn't Just Mean "Meat"

Sometimes we forget that protein comes from ingredients besides chicken, beef, and pork.

Many Mediterranean meals incorporate full-fat dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds, seafood, and eggs. There’s also lots of heartier cheeses like halloumi or feta that go into salads or sandwiches (and eggs, beans, and seafood often sneak in for an added bonus).

Dishes definitely still have meat, but typically it’s served alongside a lot of additional vegetables. For example, this Grilled Chicken Pita With Sesame Drizzle.

Another example is one of my favorite dishes, Sabich, which is a stuffed pita bread with eggplant, potato, cucumber, tomato, hummus, pickles, and herbs.

Shop Fresh First

Food shopping is totally different than what you see in America. Even in tiny towns, there are small fruit and vegetable markets. In larger cities you’ll find open air food markets with everything you’ll ever need.

Major markets sell spices, grains, and nuts in bulk, plus everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to wine and fresh baked breads. The few Western-like supermarkets that do exist tend to sell fairly fresh, seasonal items. The key to replicating this in America is to shop at local farmers’ stands and produce markets when possible.

In the regular supermarket, avoid pre-packaged and processed foods. An easy way to do this is just shop the perimeter of the store, where the produce, seafood, meat, and dairy sections are, and make sure you can read everything on the ingredient list before purchasing.

There's More to Meals Than Eating

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. It’s a communal experience, with a variety of dips, breads, salads, and shared dishes that friends and family come together to enjoy. Food is both prepared and eaten in a community. And people rarely eat on the run. Even at grab-and-go locations (think falafel from a tiny shop), there are always seats to sit and enjoy food together.

Make Room for Indulgences 

Sure, meals are good for you, but Mediterraneans also have a sweet tooth. The difference is that the place to buy sweets is from markets and bakeries, and the food is fresh, so it’s rare you’ll find artificial or disguised sweeteners.