There’s so much nutritional advice floating around that it can be difficult to pick out right from wrong. Recommendations from health professionals seem to change constantly and it’s important to make sure that you pay attention to the credentials of those who are giving advice. One style of eating that is endorsed by a number of highly respected bodies, including the NHS, HEART UK and Cancer Research UK, is the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet
With its subtropical climate, the traditional food of the Mediterranean region naturally contains a great many types of vegetable, fruit, cereal and legumes, which grow in abundance. Additionally, the Mediterranean inhabitants eat large quantities of bread, pasta and fish and less chicken and dairy produce; they eat very little red meat. Fats tend to be of the unsaturated variety, coming from nuts or olives, rather than from animal sources, which have been shown to contribute to a range of health problems.
While the heavily processed diet eaten by many in the UK and America has inherent health risks due to the amount and type of fat it contains, as well as a recorded deficiency in important vitamins and minerals, the Mediterranean diet is far more balanced. High in unsaturated fats and dietary fiber and containing plenty of antioxidants, this range of foods has been proven to contribute to lowering the risk of developing many conditions prevalent in the western world.
• The diet’s naturally low glycaemic index, for example, prevents massive swings in levels of blood sugar and lessens the likelihood of developing obesity, both of which contribute to a growing problem with type 2 diabetes.
• An abundance of unprocessed or less-processed foods reduces the risk of blockages in the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
• There is a strong correlation between diets high in fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil and dietary fiber and a lower incidence of certain cancers, including those affecting the prostate, bowel and the uterus.
Following a Mediterranean diet
Although individual components of the diet have been shown to have a positive effect on health, the greatest benefit comes from combining these components consistently over the long term. Luckily, it is very easy to obtain the necessary ingredients and the resultant meals are varied and generally considered to be enjoyable.
• The emphasis is on using a good range of fruit and vegetables, with the ‘5-a-day’ rule of thumb in mind; using five or more types of fruit or vegetables in a range of colors, including green leaves for iron and folic acid, provides a healthy basis for your daily meals.
• Bread, pasta or rice should be of the wholemeal variety to access the full nutritional benefits and cooking methods for meat or fish should be those that use the lowest amount of additional fat, such as grilling or poaching.
• If you’ve been used to eating a lot of red or fatty meat, this may be the biggest challenge you’ll face as you need to choose the leanest cuts and only have a small amount, substituting fish or chicken wherever possible. As fish contains valuable omega-3 fats, which lower triglycerides and help to reduce your chances of developing heart disease, it’s advisable to eat a portion a couple of times a week, as well as enjoying one vegetarian day if you can.
•It’s recommended that you use at least twice as much monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, as saturated fats which tend to come from animal sources. Using olive or nut oil to create tasty salad dressings, as well as using it sparingly as cooking oil, is a great way to raise the ratio.
• Choose dairy products carefully. In the Mediterranean region, eggs and dairy produce are used sparingly, with a small amount of low-fat cheese or natural yogurt being more commonly found in the diet than any heavy cream-based sauces or buttery pastries. Low-fat yogurt can be used to create healthy dips, salad dressings and pasta sauces although a simple home-made hummus is a great substitute and gives you a helping of chickpeas, which are high in fiber and have been shown to lower cholesterol.
• Avoid excessive consumption of sugars, particularly processed ones. Desserts in the Mediterranean are more likely to be fresh fruit than cakes or puddings.
It’s not very often that the experts arrive at a consensus on nutrition, but the evidence for the efficacy of a Mediterranean diet is very convincing. It was the remarkably low cardiovascular death rates in Crete and southern Italy that first attracted the attention of dietitians and studies have since revealed the raft of benefits we’re now aware of. As with any diet, it’s more effective when it is supported by plenty of exercise, but for once it’s good to be offered a healthy alternative that really doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.