Spring 2018 Nutrition Matters
May 02, 2018 By Rosie Schwartz, RD

Popular today, traditional Middle Eastern food remains much the same as it has for centuries. The cuisine is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, which was recently ranked first out of 40 diets by a panel of health experts who assessed its benefits for a range of conditions, such as diabetes, heart health, and weight control.

What makes Middle Eastern food healthy?

Plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (chickpeas and lentils, for example), nuts and seeds, and spices and herbs. These provide a wide range of nutrients that not only offer benefits for diabetes but also supply compounds for a healthy heart and blood pressure.

Small portions of meat and other animal foods, which means consuming less saturated fat.

Olive oil as the main fat. Healthy fats, such as olive oil, not only make meals tastier, but they have health benefits (see this issue’s “On the Shelf” for more information about fats). However, it is still important to use oil in moderation, since consuming too much can lead to weight gain.

Putting a healthy Middle Eastern diet into practice

Our North American lifestyles can often mean too little physical activity, oversized portions, and too many processed or convenience foods, which can result in high blood sugar levels. Joanne Lewis, healthy eating and nutrition programming director at Diabetes Canada (who is also a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator) offers these tips to keep your blood sugars from rising.

Start your meal with vegetables or a salad to help you avoid eating large amounts of starchy foods such as bread that would raise your blood sugar readings.

Watch the portion sizes and weight of commercial breads like pitas. “The size of breads or pita can vary, so it’s important to keep that in mind, and choose those that weigh less,” says Lewis.

Be aware of serving sizes—even of healthy choices such as nuts and seeds. While small amounts may be beneficial, over time large amounts can lead to weight gain, which can make regulating your blood sugar more difficult.

Choose no more than two choices of appetizers at a meal. Plant-based options, such as tabbouleh (a salad of herbs, vegetables, and bulgur wheat), fattouche (vegetable salad with toasted pitas tossed in), and the traditional chickpea spread of hummus, are all good choices.

Tips for dips and other favourites

The tasty seasonings of the Middle East (such as garlic, parsley, and cilantro) not only liven up dishes but offer a wide assortment of disease-fighting compounds such as antioxidants, which may protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Plus, says Lewis, “Using fresh herbs in your food preparation helps you to use less salt, which can be beneficial for healthy blood pressure readings.”

Use vegetable sticks (such as celery or cucumbers) with dips along with pita or laffah (a bread used to wrap sandwiches or for dipping), to cut down on the amount of carbs you are eating at meals.

Cut down on saturated fats with lower-fat yogurts. There are a variety of options available, so experiment until you find a favourite.

Choose fruit, or small portions of desserts, especially Middle Eastern pastries, which can often be full of sugar.

Here are three recipes full of the diverse flavours and tastes of the Middle East.

Tabbouleh Salad

Tabbouleh is a popular Middle Eastern salad that usually contains more grain than vegetable, but this version from my book The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada) is packed with both vegetables and herbs. Because it has less bulgur than the traditional dish, it helps to keep your carbohydrate intake lower.

½ cup (125 mL) medium bulgur

¾ cup (175 mL) finely diced English cucumber

¾ cup (175 mL) finely diced tomato

⅔ cup (150 mL) finely chopped fresh parsley

⅓ cup (75 mL) finely chopped fresh basil

⅓ cup (75 mL) finely chopped fresh mint

⅓ cup (75 mL) finely chopped green onions

2 tbsp (25 mL) fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp (25 mL) extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Rinse bulgur by placing it in a sieve and running water through it. Place in a large bowl; cover with 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water; soak for 45 to 60 minutes, or until bulgur is soft. Drain by placing bulgur in a sieve and squeezing out excess water. Return to bowl.

Add cucumber, tomato, parsley, basil, mint, green onions, lemon juice, and olive oil; toss to mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 21 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein, 7 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 g fibre, 75 mg sodium, 155 calories

Moroccan-spiced Fish and Couscous

You will be amazed at the texture and flavour of this simple dish from the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Serve some sautéed greens or a leafy green salad to complete the meal.

2 tsp (10 mL) grated orange zest

1 tsp (5 mL) ground cumin

⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) ground cinnamon

⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) cayenne pepper

¼ cup (50 mL) 1% plain yogurt

4 skinless white fish fillets, such as haddock (about 450 g/1 lb. total)

1 tbsp (15 mL) butter

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup (250 mL) frozen green peas or chopped green beans, thawed

2 cups (500 mL) 1% milk

1 cup (250 mL) whole-wheat couscous

2 oranges, peeled and sliced

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a baking sheet with foil. In a small bowl, combine orange zest, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne. Transfer half to another bowl and stir in yogurt.

Pat fish fillets dry; cut into 4 equal portions, if necessary. Place on prepared baking sheet; evenly spread yogurt mixture overtop. Bake in preheated oven for about 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat butter over medium heat. Sauté onion for 3 minutes. Add garlic and remaining spice mixture; sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in peas. Pour in milk; bring to a simmer, stirring often. Stir in couscous. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Spoon couscous onto plates; top with fish. Garnish with orange slices.

Makes 4 servings

Recipe courtesy of Dairy Farmers of Canada ©—dairygoodness.ca

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 50 g carbohydrate, 30 g protein, 6 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 8 g fibre, 349 mg sodium, 366 calories

Middle Eastern Eggplant Baked with Yogurt and Fresh Mint

This recipe, from Lighthearted at Home—The Very Best Of Anne Lindsay (Wylie), offers an easy way to prepare eggplant, a Middle Eastern favourite. It’s especially good with lamb, but it also goes well with other meats and chicken or as part of a meatless dinner. Extra-virgin olive oil can be substituted in this recipe.

3 tbsp (45 mL) canola oil

2 tbsp (25 mL) water

1 large onion, sliced

1 medium eggplant, unpeeled (about 625 g/1¼ lb.)

1 cup (250 mL) low-fat plain yogurt

3 tbsp (45 mL) chopped fresh mint and/or parsley

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ tsp (1 mL) or less salt

Freshly ground pepper


In large nonstick skillet, heat 1 tsp (5 mL) oil and the water over medium heat; cook onion, stirring, for five minutes or until softened. Remove onion and set aside.

Cut eggplant into ¼-inch (5-mm) thick slices. Brush remaining oil over eggplantslices. In skillet over medium heat, cook eggplant (in batches), turning once, until tender, about 10 minutes (or arrange in single layer on a baking sheet and bake in 400°F [200°C] oven for 15 minutes or until tender and soft).

In ungreased shallow baking dish, arrange overlapping slices of eggplant, alternating with onion.

In small bowl, stir together yogurt, mint, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste; drizzle over eggplant slices. Sprinkle liberally with paprika. Bake in 350°F (180°C) oven until hot and bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes.

Makes 8 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 8 g carbohydrate, 2 g protein, 6 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 g fibre, 97 mg sodium, 88 calories

Did you know?

As the popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine has grown, so too have the number of restaurants serving this style of cooking, especially those offering buffets. While it is an easy way to get the taste of this cuisine, many of the dishes on the menu can be high in fat and sodium. For tips on managing the temptations, visit “Eating Away From Home.”

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