I’m often asked by my clients, what’s the best diet to follow? My immediate answer is not to follow diets because they don’t work. What does work, however, is establishing healthy, life-long eating habits. And consistent, healthy eating patterns are even more critical for people with mobility impairments who are at high risk of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Studies demonstrate one of the healthiest approaches to eating for both those with and without disabilities is the Mediterranean diet. The diet is built on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and healthy fats, and less dairy, sweets and meat. Processed foods, refined sugars and bleached flour are out, while fresh produce, natural sugars and whole grains are in.
Because of all this, Mediterranean cuisine is high in fiber and healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats, and low in refined sugar. The healthy fats help prevent high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, the fiber balances blood sugar levels to help maintain a healthy weight and the absence of refined sugar reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Mediterranean eating habits can also reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, ease osteoarthritis pain and help prevent and/or decrease healing time of pressure sores.
On a recent trip to the beautiful island of Sicily, whose cuisine falls under the Mediterranean diets, I learned that Sicilians have an increased life expectancy compared to their Italian mainland counterparts. Moreover, this population has an exceptionally high number of centenarians. A human longevity study showed that two key factors determine longevity: genetics and environment. The latter of these two includes nutrition. But what is it about the Sicilian diet that is seemingly so beneficial for us?
Their long health may have something to do with the many rulers the island has had in its long history. Sicily has been conquered by a multitude of nations, including the Romans, Greeks, Spanish, Moors, Normans and Phoenicians, among others. This turnstile of ruling cultures over the centuries has heavily influenced their Mediterranean-style diet, making it exceptionally unique. For example, raisins, nutmeg, clove and saffron are common ingredients used in Sicilian dishes, but not typically found in Mediterranean recipes.
The Sicilian dish called Caponata is a delicious, tangy example of this distinct cuisine — and this eggplant-based dish has a vast array of health benefits for people with a multitude of disabilities. For instance, eggplant is high in fiber to help maintain regular bowel routines for individuals with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries who have neurogenic bowel. Vinegar supports digestion, which is vital for people with long-term health conditions who experience chronic pain or stress, which in turn impairs digestive function. For those with limited mobility, vinegar also supports bone health by enhancing calcium absorption. Lastly, the eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, raisins and olive oil make up an army of antioxidants to help protect us from one of our biggest disability-related enemies: cardiovascular disease.
So start including some Mediterranean-Sicilian meals in your regular menu and eat your way to a long, healthy and happy life!
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 1.5 pound eggplant, unpeeled, cut into half-inch cubes
1 medium onion, cubed
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons drained capers
2 tablespoons raisins
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
Toasted pine nuts
Heat oil in heavy, large pot over medium heat. Add eggplant, onion and garlic cloves. Sauté until eggplant is soft and brown, about 15 minutes.
Add diced tomatoes with juice, and raisins, then red wine vinegar and drained capers. Cover and simmer until eggplant and onion are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes.
Season caponata to taste with sea salt and pepper. Mix in fresh basil.
Transfer caponata to serving bowl. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. (Caponata can be made two days ahead. Cover and chill.)
Serve Caponata cold or warm as an appetizer, side dish or snack!