Have you heard of the Mediterranean Diet? The popularity of the Mediterranean Diet is increasing, and with good reason too. This article aims to explain what the Mediterranean Diet is, why it is beneficial and how you can make changes to move to a more Mediterranean style of eating.
The Mediterranean Diet is a style of eating that is based around the traditional healthy habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Greece, Italy and Spain. The diet was defined in 1993, as the dietary patterns found in the Mediterranean region during the early 1960s had been found to be associated with favourable health outcomes. The Mediterranean Diet has many similarities to the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating in that it is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, along with a moderate amount of fish, meat and dairy products. The Mediterranean Diet is then characterised by the frequent consumption of olive oil and a glass of red wine socially with meals.
The Mediterranean Diet is a largely plant-based diet, filled with healthy fats, and is thus rich in fibre and many nutrients, which have the potential to offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Research has grown dramatically in recent years and now presents this diet as a healthy and recommended dietary pattern for the prevention and treatment of a range of different health conditions including, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, dementia and various types of cancer.
Although the Mediterranean Diet has many similarities to the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating, it is a far way from what most of us are currently eating. Only around 7% of Australian adults are currently meeting the guidelines for 5 serves of vegetables per day, and on average Australians are getting around 1/3 of their energy intake from what we call discretionary or junk foods.
Fruit and veggies should appear at each main meal. Ideally, we should be having 2 pieces of fruit per day and around 5 serves of vegetables, with 1 serve equivalent to 1 cup of salad vegetables or ½ cup of cooked vegetables. Add vegetables in where possible, grated into pasta sauces or curries, have stir-fries packed with different vegetables, or have a big salad pre-made in the fridge and add a few big handfuls to each main meal. Fruit is a convenient and healthy snack.
Opt for wholegrains. Wholegrains are grains of cereal products (wheat, oats, rice, rye, buckwheat, bulgar, quinoa etc) that are in their whole form and have been minimally processed. Wholegrains are higher in fibre, and a range of important nutrients including iron, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choosing wholegrains might mean having a natural muesli for breakfast or wholegrain bread instead of more processed cereals or white bread.
Include more legumes in your weekly meals. Legumes include peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. They are rich in soluble fibre which is beneficial in lowering cholesterol, and is great for bowel health. Legumes also provide a source of carbohydrate with a low glycaemic index, this means they are broken down more slowly making you stay fuller for longer after eating. They also are a good source of plant proteins, which makes them a good substitute or addition to meat in dishes. You can add a tin of lentils to your Bolognese, use red lentils to thicken a soup or curry, or have hummus, made from chickpeas, as an alternative to butter on toast.
Nuts are a fantastic addition to any diet (excluding those who are allergic). They are rich in healthy unsaturated fat and fibre and are great for heart health and lowering cholesterol. They are also a very convenient and tasty snack. Include a small handful of nuts each day for heart health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil can be used as the main fat source in the diet. It is rich in unsaturated fats and is great for heart health. It can be used for cooking, salad dressing and even baking. Including a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil can also help us to increase the amount of fat-soluble nutrients that we are able to absorb from the vegetables.
Enjoy fish regularly, aiming to have it at least twice per week. Fish, particularly oily fish, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which is a type of polyunsaturated fat or ‘healthy’ fat. Regular intake can reduce cholesterol levels, and decrease the risk of heart disease. Enjoy grilled fish with veggies, or in a stew or curry, tinned fish is also a great option for cost and convenience.
Consume dairy products regularly. Just like the dietary guidelines, the Mediterranean diet also includes dairy. Dairy products are a good source of protein and calcium, so if you don’t like including dairy products in your diet look for dairy alternatives that have been fortified with calcium, as these products aren’t naturally a good source of calcium. A good way to check this is by looking at the ingredients list and checking that calcium is there.
Enjoy herbs and spices in cooking. Adding herbs and spices to cooking is a great way to add flavor and reduce the need for salt in a dish. Many herbs and spices also contain anti-inflammatory dietary components, making them a great addition to your cooking.
Cut back on red meat. Lean red meat is highly nutritious and if you enjoy it there is certainly a place for it in a healthy diet, however, many of us eat it too often. Cut back to a small serve a few times per week, and try to limit processed meats (salami, sausages, ham, bacon) to only occasionally. Lentils can be a great replacement for some of the mince in Bolognese sauce or homemade burgers.
If you enjoy wine, the best way to enjoy it is when having a meal with company. There is no need to start drinking wine because of the health benefits, however, if you do enjoy wine it can be included as part of a healthy diet. The best way to enjoy a glass of wine is socially when you are sharing a meal with loved ones.
If you would like to change your eating behaviours and improve your health outcomes, book in an appointment to see Casuarina, the Dietitian at Annie Lim Family Practice.