Quinoa, avocado, peanut butter, kale, sprouted whole grain tortilla? Do these ingredients sound foreign to you or simply fads? Let’s discover the original healthy eating regime, the millennia-old Mediterranean Diet.
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The benefits of the Mediterranean diet are many and well documented. From helping to fight obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and in a recent study also to lessen the risks of developing breast cancer, the nutrients, and ingredients that constitute this eating regime are both healthy and delicious. The diet became popular in the 1990s – even though the American Scientist Dr. Ancel Keys (1904-2004) publicized the Mediterranean diet while he was stationed in Italy during WWII, it was not until about the 1990s that it was widely recognized and followed elsewhere by nutritionally conscious people.
When she visited EXPO2015 in Milan, Michelle Obama, a spokesperson for healthy eating and a US-wide anti-obesity drive, extolled the ease and tastiness of a Mediterranean dish “a packet of pasta, some tomato and fresh basil… and in 30 minutes you have a delicious meal”. But a Mediterranean diet does not actually consist of just pasta and pizza, so Swide will explain how the food groups and ingredients are eaten in proportion to make up the Mediterranean diet and the buzz word? Everything is in moderation.
The rules of the diet are easily digestible (excuse the pun) thanks to simple pyramids that explain daily, weekly, or monthly portion consumption for each major food group. (Example above).
In a nutshell, the rules are pretty simple:
- Lots of plant foods
- High consumption of beans, nuts, cereals (in the form of wheat, oats, barley, corn, or brown rice), and seeds
- Olive oil as the primary source of dietary fat
- Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods
- Moderate amounts of fish and poultry
- No more than about four eggs each week
- Small pieces of red meat each week (compared to northern Europe)
- Low to moderate amounts of wine
- 25% to 35% of calorie intake consists of fat
- Saturated fat makes up no more than 8% of calorie intake
Going into more detail, a part from the abundance of fruit and veg, there are a number of ingredients in the Mediterranean diet which are the basis of the health benefits of the regime.
Olive oil, for example, is the primary source of fat. Olive oil is mainly monounsaturated fat — a type of fat that can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats. “Extra-virgin” and “virgin” olive oils (the least processed forms and most common in the countries where the Mediterranean diet is a way of life) also contain the highest levels of protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables are packed with fiber, which slows digestion and helps control blood sugar. Carbs in the Mediterranean diet are not off-limits, but they are advised to be eaten during the day, in the largest meal, which usually is lunch.
Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting, and are associated with decreased incidence of sudden heart attacks, improve the health of your blood vessels, and help moderate blood pressure, and these can be found in fatty fish, such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon all eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet.
Looking to switch to a Mediterranean Diet? As well as having your cookbooks at the ready and trying lots of new recipes hailing from Italy, Spain, Portugal Greece and so on, here are a few simple rules to get you on your way:
- Ban the butter, margarine, and salad dressings: Sauté food in olive oil or, even better, dress food with raw olive oil.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes
- Choose whole grains instead of refined pieces of bread and pasta. And why not experiment with spelled and barley?
- Substitute a fish meal for red meat at least twice per week
- Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim milk and lighter cheese and yogurt
- Season with herbs and not salt