Hummus, tomato-cucumber salad, extra-virgin olive oil … these and other staple foods on virtually every Israeli table undoubtedly helped propel the country to No. 1 on a new ranking of countries with the lowest rate of diet-related deaths worldwide and No. 10 on the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index.
Although many Israelis do have some unhealthy eating habits—too much char-grilled meat, processed foods, sweets and deep-fried foods—the overall picture is rosy compared to most countries’ diets and especially the SAD (standard American diet).
1. Mediterranean diet
The healthful foundation of Israel’s way of eating is common to all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean diet encourages moderate amounts of fish and poultry, and low intake of dairy products (mostly yogurt and cheese), red and processed meats and sweets.
“The Mediterranean diet has the most evidence of being the ‘super diet,’ and it’s also sustainable especially if it’s local,” said Dr. Elliot Berry, professor emeritus of human nutrition and metabolism at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, and a consultant to the United Nations and the Israeli Health Ministry.
2. Salad with breakfast, lunch and dinner
Freshly chopped salad is the cornerstone of all Israeli meals. The most basic Israeli salad starts with locally grown cucumbers and tomatoes dressed with herbs, sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil (the only kind available here) and squeezed lemon juice.
3. Big breakfasts
If you’ve ever enjoyed a traditional Israeli breakfast buffet at a hotel or restaurant, you get it. In addition to a huge variety of raw sliced vegetables and vegetable salads, you’ll find shakshuka (eggs poached in pepper-and-onion-studded tomato sauce), freshly baked breads, a large variety of cheeses, porridge and other warm delights to jumpstart your day.
The benefits of a hearty breakfast have been proven in several Israel studies that reveal eating more in the morning and less in the evening suppresses blood-sugar surges, eases weight loss, and helps diabetics avoid insulin resistance.
4. Hummus, hummus, hummus
If you don’t see a plate of homemade hummus at mealtime, you’re probably not in Israel. This delicious and nutritious creamy paste—based on protein-rich chickpeas, sesame tahini, sea salt and lemon juice—is not only for dipping. A large plate of hummus garnished with olive oil and parsley, and often with whole cooked chickpeas, zaatar and extra tahini, is considered a perfectly satisfying meal, scooped up with chunks of warm fluffy pita bread.
Tahini (tahina to Israelis), simply ground sesame seeds, is not only an essential ingredient in hummus but has pride of place in Israeli cuisine as the basis of an all-purpose dip and dressing (think falafel, sabich or whole-roasted eggplant).
The regal red pomegranate is one of the seven indigenous crops mentioned in the Bible (the others are wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs and dates) and is a visual symbol of Israel itself.
Pomegranate seeds guard against cancer and heart disease, boost immunity and reduce chronic inflammation. Gastric distress, hot flashes, hemorrhoids, conjunctivitis, osteoarthritis, hypertension and high cholesterol are some of the ailments pomegranate seeds are believed to ease. The seeds, no net carbs are used in both vegetable and fruit salads, while pomegranate juice is popular for marinades and beverages.
Along with vitamins and minerals, tomatoes contain lycopene, the carotenoid phytonutrient that makes them red. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant beneficial for the heart, blood pressure, prostate, bones and skin. Our bodies absorb lycopene best when tomatoes are consumed with something oily like olive oil or cheese.
8. Olive oil
Unrefined extra-virgin olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, and hence in Israeli cooking. Often considered a fountain of youth, EVOO is a rich source of healthful monounsaturated fat, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. (“Virgin” means it comes from the first pressing, while “extra” signifies low acidity, both critical factors in a high-quality oil.)
9. Dates and date honey (silan)
Israelis love locally grown dates and this superfruit loves them back: dates protect against heart attack and stroke by lowering blood triglyceride levels, stabilizing blood pressure and providing a good dose of antioxidants, vitamins A and B, protein and dietary fiber. Eaten mainly in dried form, dates are truly “all natural” because, unlike other dried fruit, dates do not need to be preserved with potassium sorbate or sulfur dioxide. Their high sugar content preserves them naturally.
By Abigail Klein Leichman / Israel21c