What is a Mediterranean Diet?
We all have the vague idea that following a Mediterranean Diet might be the secret to longer life – witness all those television commercials for Olivio. The problem is, we have very mixed ideas about what the Mediterranean Diet actually is. We know that people in Mediterranean countries eat a lot of tomatoes and olive oil with some fish and meat thrown in and we know that mealtimes are lengthy and very sociable involving a fair amount of red wine – and that’s about as far as our knowledge goes.
In fact, diet differs widely according to country and season. During a Spanish winter you might be consuming thick slabs of pork belly with lentils whereas on an Italian Summer’s Day you might eat lightly fried fish with a huge plate of rocket.
Here are 5 of the main components that Mediterranean Diets share and which we can incorporate into our own diets the year round:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Mediterranean countries drizzle and cook with a lot of olive oil and it is thought that this might contribute to why people in the region live longer and have better cardiovascular health. Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, plant chemicals that act as antioxidants to suppress inflammation (the main cause of degenerative disease), particularly in the heart and brain. Polyphenols are also believed to improve gut health by feeding and helping to maintain a diverse population of beneficial bacteria.
These benefits are only found in extra virgin olive oil so don’t be tempted to buy cheaper refined substitutes – look out for the words extra virgin and definitely don’t be fooled by brands such as Olivio, which is a margarine containing very little actual olive oil. Throw out your refined sunflower oils and start using extra virgin olive oil more liberally, don’t be scared to cook with it at low temperatures (sauté and stir fry but never let the oil smoke) and use it in your salad dressings.
Wholegrains and Legumes
Mediterranean Diets typically include wholegrains. Polenta, barley, buckwheat, farro and bulgar wheat might be found on the Mediterranean table, as well as legumes like cannellini, fava and kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils. These foods supply a lot of fibre and fibre helps to excrete excess cholesterol and keep blood sugar in balance so that we feel fuller for longer and avoid energy dips.
In the UK we tend to bulk out our meals with huge servings of refined white pasta and white rice (kidding ourselves that we are being very continental!) when we should be opting for small servings of the more fibrous wholegrains and legumes. We simply don’t eat enough fibre. It is fine to eat the occasional pizza, but if possible switch to a wholegrain base and have a slice rather than the whole thing – better still accompany it with a large mixed salad.
The Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fruit and vegetables as a substantial part of the meal – not merely as garnish. A Mediterranean Mamma cooks all sorts of dark green vegetable throughout the year, plenty of which we don’t even see in the UK. Dark green vegetables are full of nutritious B vitamins such as folic acid (important for cardiovascular health) and are a rich source of minerals like iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium and fibre.
Nutrient dense foods are vital for optimal health and often sadly lacking in the UK standard diet. We should all include dark green vegetables like kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, cabbage chard and cavolo nero in our diet.
I advise my clients to eat as many different vegetables as possible and to make sure that a good proportion of these are green veggies – ideally covering half their plate – steamed, stir fried, in salads and soups.
Fresh fish are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. Oily fish – sardines and anchovies – are frequently eaten and supply a good level of omega 3 fats – good for the brain, for cardiovascular health and for suppressing inflammation. Supressing inflammation is key in anti-ageing so we should all start to include oily fish in our diets by adding salmon, mackerel and herring to our shopping lists along with sardines and anchovies. Aim to include these fish in your diet three times a week making them the main event of a meal – a solitary anchovy on a pizza is not fulfilling your needs for omega 3s! Don’t let the only fish in your diet be the breadcrumbed or battered variety.
The good news is that red wine really does have health benefits. It contains polyphenol antioxidants and can therefore be anti-inflammatory and reduce the effects of ageing. The thing to remember about red wine is that it is only beneficial if drunk in moderation and problems arise if consumption goes up to half a bottle a night – you know who you are! We need to remember that moderation is key – something us Brits tend to forget rather too readily. Always choose red over white wine or rosé as it is red wine that contains those polyphenols.
Alli Godbold is a qualified nutritional therapist, specialising in weight loss, fatigue and digestive and hormonal health. She is also a certified gluten practitioner. Alli has worked forThe Food Doctor and currently works as nutritionist for The Healthy Holiday Company and is a regular contributor to Healthista.com. She runs frequent cookery workshops from her West London kitchen and has published a popular cookery book Feed Your Health. She created the Nourish diet for weight loss and improved health and has recently published a book of healthy recipes for her Nourish clients More Nourish Diet Recipes.