Mediterranean Healthy Eating Guide
Food for the Mind, Body, and Soul
When speaking about the Mediterranean way of life, the positives of living in the sun blessed countries around the clear Mediterranean sea water can make it sound like a paradise for those who love good food, beautiful weather, and of course good wine!
Italian traditions have long been associated with Mediterranean culture as one of the most historically steeped and successful in exporting the Italian way of life globally. One of the main exports of course being the food as traditional to Italy, pizza and pasta are readily available to eat in most countries around the world.
Recent reports and news articles have once again highlighted the health benefits of Mediterranean and the traditional Italian diet. Most recently, it was covered by leading doctors who suggested that advising patients at risk of stroke or heart attack that adopting the diet could be as effective as taking prescribed statins.
Dr Aseem Malhotra, from Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey, received coverage from his team’s latest analysis of research showing the benefits of a diet – mentioning the Mediterranean as a key example – focussing on the balance of nutrition that food gave, rather than simplified portion advice and misconceptions about calorie intakes.
So why is it that the Mediterranean diet is highlighted as meeting this balance that we need? We spoke to diet and nutrition experts to give you answers into what makes the Med diet so healthy. Our experts:
John J Anderson – Deputy Editor of the British Journal of Nutrition and faculty member at the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, co-author of The Mediterranean Way of Eating
Marilyn Sparling – Registered and Licensed Dietitian retired from Duke University Medical Center, North Carolina, co-author of The Mediterranean Way of Eating
Liz Weinandy – Dietitian at the Ohio State University Medical Center
Speaking to Liz Weinandy, she states that health benefits of the Mediterranean diet “come from the many vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and healthy fats which are found in the foods common to that region”. She also suggested that the health aspects of the diet come from the consumption of natural and unprocessed foods coming from more local sources: “Olive oil is the primary fat used in the region and it is high in polyphenols which are beneficial compounds that help to prevent damage to our bodies on a cellular level.”
When speaking of the difference between the eating culture in the Mediterranean and the USA, Liz stressed the need to obtain nutrients from natural sources “People in this region get their nutrients from food and not primarily from supplements. Nutrients in food are better absorbed and utilized by the body. I think many times, Americans feel we can just take a supplement and be covered but it doesn’t usually work that way.“
Marilyn, co-author of The Mediterranean Way of Eating, commented that “one of the basic foundations of the Mediterranean way of eating is that it includes all of the basic food groups and is nutrient dense, meaning it contains the healthy vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals (plant chemicals that your body needs).”
She went on to add that “it is not as energy dense which translates mainly into calories, so you can manage weight on it because you’re choosing whole foods and less processed foods. It’s a balanced diet as you’re not making extremes in terms of the three main macro-nutrients; carbohydrates, protein, and fats.”
When asked what advantages the Mediterranean diet has over current weight loss diets, John states that “it really gives a good balance overall, the total caloric content of the Mediterranean diet is not so much better, it actually works out as pretty similar to some of the other (diets), though people do become healthier as a result of it because of the nutrients and phytochemicals from the plants.”
Highlighting the adaptability of the diet, Marilyn adds that the advantage in following the diet is that it doesn’t have to follow “a formulaic pattern of set rules – it’s a way of eating that is healthy and highly adaptable to many countries and differences in people”
Beyond the surface health and wellbeing benefits from the Mediterranean diet, effects on major chronic diseases that are becoming increasingly prevalent have been found. We asked John Anderson about what diseases benefits are found:
“Cardio vascular disease, including heart, and related issues to the vascular system. Obesity and diabetes type 2 tend to run together. It also affects osteoporosis to some extent. Mental diseases like dementia and altzheimers and many others are being found to be benefitted by a Mediterranean diet.”
The list of benefits that the Mediterranean diet has been shown to give ranges from keeping yourself healthy to assisting the treatment of increasingly common diseases. Though how can this be applied to you in day to day living? We spoke to nutritionist and owner of fitness coaching company LuciFit LLC, Luci Gabel, who highlights ways that you can adopt the diet day to day:
Luci Gabel: Exercise physiologist, nutritionist and owner of fitness coaching company LuciFit LLC, Luci is a regular visitor to Italy. Based in the USA, Luci helped us in giving her perspective of the Mediterranean diet from a nutritionist’s perspective.
- When many people eat pasta, or pizza, these dishes are the centre of the plate and often the only thing on the plate. But in Italy, fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and proteins are an equally important part of the meal. They may eat grain-based foods two or three times a day, but they eat small amounts of them, and the rest of the meal contains the other parts of a well-rounded diet which provide important vitamins, nutrients, and phytochemicals for health and longevity.
- The Mediterranean diet is a seasonal one. This translates to the fact that all of the fruits, vegetables and meats are very fresh. Food you’ll find in the market and in good restaurants has just been harvested that morning or shortly before. We haven’t proven food that’s less fresh has less nutrient value, but I can say that if the fruit and vegetables taste better – people will eat more of them for sure.
- There is a big difference between fish eaten in Italy (Mediterranean in general) and fish eaten in other places (like the UK and America) being that it’s not breaded or fried, but rather baked or broiled. The fish is recently caught and, because of its freshness, it already tastes great. Not much is added to seafood except occasionally some olive oil or salt and pepper, or perhaps an herb or two.
- Italians eat a variety of meats too, and though many people will automatically think I’m talking about pepperoni or prosciutto, this is not the type of meat that’s usually eaten. The meats you’ll find in the Mediterranean area are from animals that are free to roam on a farm, in the hills (mainly cows and sheep). Far less mass production of meats is found in Italy like we have elsewhere and for many reasons this kind of meat is healthier – one reason is that fat from animals that were free to roam will have more Omega 3 content.
- Wine is definitely a part of the diet, and we know that small amounts of red wine can be good for the blood vessels. You’ll see both the French and Italians drinking wine with dinner, and sometimes with lunch. But it’s enjoyed and savoured like every other part of the meal – as part of the meal, hardly taken in excess.
- Sweets are a component that not many people talk about. The big difference between the sweets here (Italy, France, Mediterranean in general) is that they are always served in small, single serving sizes. Another contribution is that the meals last a while – they are long affairs with ample time between courses – that gives time for the sugar to hit the blood stream and the body to realise it’s been fed.
A balanced diet that is rich in variety, organic and fresh foods is one that will help you on the path to adopting a life that reaps the health benefits it brings; supporting an equally strong mind, body and soul. When we look at how the Mediterranean lifestyle embraces wholesome, unprocessed foods that are plentiful in nutrients and, when eaten in moderations, it’s clear that their relationship with food is both healthy and prosperous. Avoiding excessively unnatural fatty foods, and opting to cook via basic alternatives, such as to broil, shows how easy it is to obtain a nutrient and vitamin complete Mediterranean diet and valued way of life.
To help you on your way to adopting the Mediterranean diet, we asked some top cooks to provide quick, easy, and healthy recipes for you to follow at home. Check back in the near future for some great suggestions.