The Mediterranean Diet - Made Simple
One of the best studied diets in terms of cardiovascular health is the 'Mediterranean diet'. This consists largely of fish, monounsaturated fats from olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes/nuts, and moderate alcohol consumption. In fact, the Mediterranean diet crops up in magazines, health blogs and newspapers, almost on a daily basis. But what does the term actually mean and how can it help you maintain a healthier lifestyle?
When we use the term 'diet', we are not referring to a crash weight-loss fad, as in, 'I lost 20 pounds on the Mediterranean Diet' Rather, we mean the nutritional choices that you make on a day-to-day basis. The Mediterranean diet involves a broad range of foods that have been traditionally eaten in such countries as Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, during a time when little imported food existed and people lived off what was grown locally. This article will look at some of the staples of the Mediterranean diet and attempt to identify certain aspects that are particularly beneficial for cardio-protection as more and more research continues to highlight the potential for the Mediterranean diet to act as a key player in cardiovascular disease prevention.
Historically, the people of the Mediterranean have been observed to live longer and suffer from less heart-related problems than populations in the rest of Europe. In the last century, this statistic has all but disappeared as diets across the continent as a whole have become much more homogenised and fast-food orientated, while lifestyles have become more sedentary. In fact, Greece now has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity anywhere in the world.1 Nevertheless, as the old way of life is slowly replaced by vacuum-packed ready meals and Big Macs, there is a constant build up of evidence that supports the Mediterranean diet's healthy claims.
As a nutritional therapist, I should point out that any diet is only as good as the lifestyle that it is a part of.
As a nutritional therapist, I should point out that any diet is only as good as the lifestyle that it is a part of. The people who traditionally benefited from this type of diet generally had physically active lifestyles, involving a lot of manual labour. The Mediterranean culture of long meals, shared with many family members is also a benefit as this relaxed pace of consumption is much better for our digestive systems. When we eat in silence, in front of the television, there is a tendency not to chew properly and to eat too quickly, giving our digestive systems a difficult job.
The elements of the Mediterranean diet vary greatly, depending on geography and what is available at the time of year, but here are some of the essential elements to start incorporating into your nutrition planning:
Olives and olive oil are probably the first things that we all think of when the Mediterranean diet is mentioned. Olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols. I wrote in more detail about the benefits and risks of olive oil in a previous article, but as a general rule, try to use olive oil as a dressing, rather than a cooking oil, due to its low smoke point (instead cook with coconut oil) and make sure that it is stored in an airtight bottle to prevent oxidisation.
Wholewheat pasta is a source of complex starchy carbohydrates, which should make up around a third of our diet2. Starchy carbohydrates are an important source of energy and also contain fibre, iron and B vitamins. However, it is important to have an active lifestyle if consuming these foods in large amounts. If you find that your days are more sedentary than you would like, consider leaving the pasta out.
Pulses include any edible seed that grows in a pod, so beans (baked, broad, runner, butter, kidney etc.), lentils, chickpeas, and garden peas are all part of this family. Pulses in general are a great source of protein and iron, especially important if you are a vegetarian. Like wholewheat pasta, they are a starchy food and so have plenty of fibre, which is often associated with reducing the risk of type-2 diabetes and heart disease. Around 80g of pulses count as one of your five-a-day.
If consuming dried pulses, make sure you soak them as per the instructions on the packaging, in order to get rid of toxins that are often present. Tinned pulses will usually be safe to eat straight away, but always try to get hold of brands that have no added sugar or salt.
Fish, specifically oily fish, are a good source of lean protein, as well as supplying omega-3 fatty acids. There is a lot of concern today about the levels of mercury and other heavy metals in our fish stocks. Our seas are becoming more and more polluted, so use caution and check where your fish come from. Additionally, certain fish stocks are on the brink of collapse due to intensive fishing techniques and you may want to consider this when choosing what to buy in the supermarket. Here is a good article that may help you when shopping for fish.
Try to consume as many of your vegetables in raw form as possible, as cooking allows many of the nutrients to escape.
Fresh Organic Fruit and Vegetables
With new guidelines suggesting that we should be eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables every day, the Mediterranean diet, with its abundance of tomatoes, artichokes, beets, apples, figs, nuts, lemons etc, seems more and more like a fantastic healthy option. Don't worry so much about which fruit and veg are native to the Mediterranean, it is more beneficial to try and source organic foods, free of pesticides and chemicals. If your budget doesn't stretch to organic, take a look at this article on the best and worst non-organic fruit and vegetables to include in your diet. Try to consume as many of your vegetables in raw form as possible, as cooking allows many of the nutrients to escape.
Not only are fresh herbs full of nutrition, but they are also incredibly flavorsome and, as such, are a replacement for salt and sugar. If you can gradually wean yourself off the need for salt and sugar in your cooking, your taste buds will come to much prefer the more complex and delicate tastes of basil, bay leaf, thyme and the numerous other herbs used in the Mediterranean.
Cheese and Yoghurt
Small amounts of cheese and yoghurt are common to the Mediterranean diet. They are a good source of calcium, which helps keep your bones strong and supports cardiovascular health. Some of the most common cheeses found in the Mediterranean are feta, haloumi, manchego, Parmesan, and ricotta.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some of my favourite healthy Mediterranean recipes, so please check back soon, or sign up to my newsletter to make sure you don't miss out!