• Sophia Charalambous

The Mediterranean Diet

It feels like every day we are bombarded with a new diet trend or a way to “cure” cancer or diabetes through our diets. This can be overwhelming and confusing, not knowing what the truth is and which advice to take. The bottom line is – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

One type of diet has a large body of evidence behind it and is globally recognised as an optimum diet. This is the traditional Mediterranean diet. This has been defined as a:

“dietary pattern rich in plant foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, tree nuts, seeds and olives), with olive oil as the principal source of added fat, along with high to moderate intakes of fish and seafood, moderate consumption of eggs, poultry and dairy products (cheese and yogurt), low consumption of red meat and a moderate intake of alcohol (mainly wine during meals).”

This type of diet has been associated with increasing life expectancy and reducing the risk of developing metabolic syndromes such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. It also may help to delay the development of some cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

But it is not just the diet which has health benefits, the Mediterranean lifestyle is also something which should be adopted alongside the diet. This includes focusing on frequent physical activity (e.g. walking or taking the stairs) for at least 30 minutes per day, buying seasonal produce and incorporating social meals. Olive oil is the primary source of dietary fat, ideally virgin or extra virgin olive oil, due to its high nutritional value. It is a source of antioxidants, which helps to give it resistance to high cooking temperatures, as well as being used in dressings.

The Mediterranean diet and lifestyle also have benefits for those wanting to shift a few pounds, as well as those who are just wanting to optimise their dietary intake and are not focused on weight.

However, even the traditional Mediterranean diet is slowly being lost, with the increase of globalisation in the modern world. The traditional diet was based on frugality, which is being diluted with the increase in disposable income, leading to larger portion sizes and increased consumption of red and processed meat, which subsequently has led to decreased intakes of beans and legumes.

So how can we change our diets towards a Mediterranean style diet?

It is recommended to make small changes to your habits by making healthy swaps. Here are some of the main principles of the Mediterranean diet and how to incorporate these into your lifestyle:

1. Ensure you are having a variety of plant foods every day

These have a high nutritional value, as they are high in vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

· Aim to include minimally processed whole grains every day. This includes brown rice, brown pasta, oats, couscous, quinoa, bulgur wheat and wholegrain breads and cereals.

· Include vegetables in most meals and snacks throughout the day

· No fruit or vegetables are off limits or “better” than others. Aim to include a variety of different colours and types. Try to have a variety of cooked and raw vegetables, such as salads.

· Eat three or less servings per week of potatoes and try to avoid potatoes which are fried.

· Eat legumes (e.g. dried beans, peas and lentils) at least a couple of times per week. These can be added to broth-based soups or salads or by dipping vegetable sticks into hummus, white or black bean dips.

· Aim to increase your intake of nuts and seeds every day e.g. sprinkle on cereals and salads, add to baking or have as snacks.

2. Use olive oil for cooking and to add flavour to food.

· Aim for at least 15ml (1 tablespoon) of olive oil each day. This can be used when you sauté, grill, roast, pan fry or bake. You can also drizzle on vegetables, salads or bread.

3. Flavour food with spices, herbs, garlic and onion instead of salt.

· This includes herbs like rosemary, oregano, parsley, basil and mint.

· Spices such as paprika, black pepper cinnamon and nutmeg.

4. Choose low fat milk and dairy products, and alternatives

· This includes, semi skimmed or skimmed milk, low fat cheeses (20% milk fat or less) and low fat yogurts and kefir (0%-2% fat).

5. Eat at least two servings of fish and seafood each week

· Try to ensure you are buying fish from local and sustainable sources. Try to include a variety of oily fish (such as, salmon, mackerel, anchovies and fresh tuna) and white fish (such as cod, haddock).

6. Limit red meat

· Limit red meat such as beef, lamb and pork, and aim for 2 servings or less per week.

· Replace red and processed meat for lean white meat, such as chicken, turkey or rabbit. You can also try some meat free alternatives such as quorn mince or other products.

· Avoid or limit processed meat to a maximum of 1 serving per week. This includes hot dogs, sausages, deli meats, salami and bacon.

7. Drink plenty of fluids

· Aim for 1.5 to 2.0 litres per day – this equates to about 6-8 cups per day.

· This includes water, tea and herbal tea, coffee without sugar or honey.

· Try putting a jug of water on the table during mealtimes and keep a glass or bottle or water nearby while at work or school.

8. If you drink alcohol, limit to moderate amounts with meals.

· This equates to about one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men.

· One serving is 142ml (5oz) glass of 12% wine.

· You do not have to drink alcohol to follow a Mediterranean diet.

9. Limit sweets and desserts

· Limit sweets such as pastries, desserts, ice cream, chocolate to a couple of times per week or less; or save them for special occasions. Replace these with fruit salads, dried fruit and fruit slices.

· Replace sugary fizzy drinks with water or sugar free alternatives.

As you can see from the points above, moderation is key. It’s not about extreme diets changes or avoiding large food groups. It is about having a little bit of everything, in the right amounts.

I appreciate this may be a lot of changes to make for most people, as our UK diet is generally high in meat consumption, and low in regular fruit and vegetables, especially legumes. However, the key is to make small realistic changes to your daily life. For example, you might decide to focus on increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables first, by making changes to your snacks or adding a vegetable or salad with each of your meals. Start with this until it is an easy habit to maintain, then move onto another point after this. You might then decide to park further away from work or the school drop off, to increase your daily physical activity by building it into your daily routine.

This may seem like small changes, but it will equal long term lifestyle changes for the better – think of where you could be in 6 months, or a year from now!

Sometimes people need some guidance on where to start with changes, as they may feel overwhelmed or have a pre-existing medical condition which need to be factored in. Speak to your local dietitian if you want some guidance on how to change your diet, to bring it more in line with the traditional Mediterranean diet.

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