Inspired by the traditional dietary habits of Mediterranean countries like Spain, the Mediterranean Diet has long been considered one of the healthiest ways of eating and living. Despite the apparent paradox of a high fat diet, historically low rates of cardiovascular disease in Spain, Italy and Greece are the envy of countries like the UK and US who consume similar levels of fat. Health professionals now believe that not only is the type of fat consumed a factor (olive oil vs. butter for example), but that we also need to look at the bigger picture to understand why we should all adopt a more mediterranean approach to eating.
Fruit and vegetables form the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. These low-calorie, high-fibre and nutrient-packed power foods should feature highly at every mealtime – consider them the backbone of your menu planning. Add to this mix – wholegrains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds and you have the foundation of your diet.
Protein, the building blocks that our bodies use to make new cells, repair injury, fight infection, make hormones and trigger chemical reactions, comes mainly from freshly caught fish and shellfish, which is baked or grilled not battered and fried. Lentils, beans, nuts and eggs also provide high quality protein, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Meat does feature in a mediterranean diet but only in small portions and generally only leaner cuts, with poultry favoured over fatty red meats.
The main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet comes from liberal quantities of olive oil and olives, which may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. For maximum nutrient intake, it’s best to use extra virgin olive oil for dressing salads and vegetables. Cheese and yoghurt may be eaten regularly but only in moderate portions. Plenty of herbs and spices maximize the flavour of mediterranean food, without the need for excess salt and fat.
Wine may also feature regularly at mealtimes but, again, is consumed in moderation. Red wine in particular contains powerful antioxidants which can lower the risk of heart disease and some cancers.
One important factor in the mediterranean approach to eating is its famously sociable attitude to mealtimes. Meals almost always takes place in the company of friends and family which ensures food is savored, enjoyed and lingered over.
Another prime lifestyle ingredient is an emphasis on physical activity. We all find it difficult to schedule time for exercise but if we keep our daily routine active, it can have a significant impact on our all-round fitness. So always take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator and cycle to work if you usually drive – or try walking if you’re near enough to not need wheels! Around the home, turn off the TV and get involved in more physical downtime pursuits. Activities like gardening, playing football with your kids in the garden and even vigorous cleaning all help raise the heart rate, strengthen muscles and burn calories, which in turn provides a healthy balance to nutritious meals.
As with most things in life, the Mediterranean Diet does not revolve around one single magic ingredient but involves making both healthy dietary and healthy lifestyle choices. Happily, you don’t have to cut down the amount you eat or accept a reduction in the quality of your food. Rather, with a few key changes, you should be able to enjoy your meals and your health all the more.