Inspired by the traditional eating patterns of Greece, southern Italy and Spain is what we now refer to as the Mediterranean diet. With a focus on seasonal fruits and vegetables, adherents also consume relatively high amounts of olive oil, fish, legumes and unrefined cereals, with a smaller emphasis placed on cheese and yoghurt, wine and poultry and a minimal amount of red meat. The total amount of fat in this dietary pattern is quite high, at 25% to 35%, but the saturated fats only comprise 8%.
Elsewhere around the Mediterranean
Despite the name, the Mediterranean diet is not reflective of all Mediterranean cuisine. In northern Italy, for example, lard and butter feature heavily in cooking and preparing food, and olive is relegated to merely dressing salads and cooked vegetables at the table. On the other side of the sea, North Africans also consume high amounts of animal fats and less fish and cereals. Indeed, it might not be the perfect name for this way of eating, but it seems as though we’re stuck with it.
Why do we sing its praises?
With so many diets and eating patterns receiving air and print time these days, why has the Mediterranean stayed relevant and on-trend? It may have something to do with the measurable health effects that scientists point to as evidence that it’s one of the best ways to approach food and lifestyle. It’s low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fibre, and rich in nutrients. Few calories are wasted. Researchers also suspect that olive oil has many health-promoting properties. The clincher: adherence to the Mediterranean diet shows a negative association with heart disease in initially healthy middle aged adults in the region. Further, a scientific review in 2011 showed that it was even more effective at improving long-term cardiovascular risk factors than a low fat diet. We also see less depression and less dementia associated with the diet.
Food isn’t the sole reason we celebrate the Mediterranean way of life, though. A physically active lifestyle is important, with labour, walking and cycling a part of everyday life. Traditional towns and villages are more conducive to activity than the bigger cities, with amenities close together and less traffic pollutants. Moderate sun exposure is also noted in this part of the world, though the incidence of skin cancer is much lower than neighbouring parts of the world. Something in the diet, perhaps?
How to get started
Just buy a couple of Mediterranean cookbooks and get to work, right? Not so fast! You’re likely to get a whole of recipes for festive foods and desserts that simply don’t feature from day to day in this diet. Nor will you find pizza and pasta and Bolognese and kebabs and all those indulgent Europeans delights. The real Mediterranean diet, or at least the one that has been researched extensively, is based on the peasant diet: those who live of the land, catch their own fish, bake their own bread and swap goods with the neighbours. That doesn’t mean you need to do these very things, but you can stick with the principals. Here are some ground rules.
- Eat only fruit and natural yoghurt for dessert.
- Eat vegetables with every meal
- Use olive oil as your main added fat
- Restrict red meat to once or twice a week
- Eat wholegrain cereals or breads every day
- Have a legume-based meal twice a week
- Eat fish several times a week, with an emphasis on oily fish
Refocus on your health
Remember that a healthy diet and lifestyle is about feeling good, not what will make you lose weight the quickest or reshape your thighs. It’s about an approach to food and movement that is celebratory, patient and moderate, never about hunger and deprivation, or banning whole food groups. As a part of your effort to reclaim your health, consider comparing private health insurance plans in order to safeguard your health into the future. Despite your good choices, you never really know when you might need it. Bon Appetite!