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Mediterranean Diet


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Guest Dr Colin Tidy

The term 'Mediterranean Diet' describes a specific mix of dietary food ingredients, shown to promote health and long life in people.

The word Mediterranean refers to the origins of the diet, rather than to specific foods such as Greek or Italian foods.

Using a wide range of fruits and vegetables gives the body maximum access to sources of vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients. There are individual foods within the Mediterranean Diet which are particularly beneficial to health, such as olive oil, garlic and some fruits and vegetables but overall it is the combination of foods within a healthy lifestyle which is linked to improved health.

The overuse of salt in flavouring Western-style meals and fast foods has been linked with increased blood pressure. The healthy alternative is to replace the excess salt with herbs and also garlic, as Mediterranean people have done for many years. This can also add new flavours to quite simple pasta dishes, rice dishes and stews.

The Mediterranean Diet is rich in vegetables, fruit, peas and beans (legumes) and grains. It also contains moderate amounts of chicken and fish. There is little red meat and most fat is unsaturated and comes from olive oil and nuts. Having a small amount of red wine has been shown to increase the health benefits.

In combination with moderate exercise and not smoking, the Mediterranean Diet offers a scientifically researched, affordable, balanced and health-promoting lifestyle choice.

The health benefits

The typical Western diet is high in animal fats, sugar and preservatives but low in fruit and vegetables. Scientific research has shown that this food combination is partially responsible for triggering many chronic diseases and cancers.

Research has also shown that following a Mediterranean diet can reduce the chance of developing conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, some cancers, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

It can also be useful for people wishing to lose weight as it is rich in fruit and vegetables and lower in sugars and saturated fats than a typical Western diet.

Switching from a Western to a Mediterranean diet represents a healthy lifestyle choice. It can reduce the risk of a premature death and increase the chance of a healthy retirement, free from long-term medication.

Mediterranean Diet ingredients

Vegetables and fruits

The World Health Organization (WHO) - and the UK Government's Change4Life campaign - recommend we eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This guidance is partly based on research into the Mediterranean Diet. Other governments recommend higher levels of fruit and vegetables, such as seven or even ten portions daily.
A wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits is an important part of the Mediterranean Diet. Tinned, dried and frozen fruit or vegetables are also valuable in the diet.
They are high in fibre, antioxidants and vitamins, especially vitamin C.
They help to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancers and bowel problems.

 

Cereals

Cereals should be wholegrain where possible, such as wholemeal bread or brown rice or pasta.
Examples are wheat, barley, oats, millet, corn and rice. They are found in cereal flakes, pasta, bread, couscous and crackers.
They provide carbohydrate, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
They help to reduce bowel problems, including cancers; they help to lower cholesterol, which can reduce the risk of heart disease.

 

Fish

Various types of fish are important in the Mediterranean Diet. White fish such as cod, plaice, haddock, hake and halibut are a good source of protein which is low in fat.
Shellfish such as prawns, crab, lobster and mussels contain protein and some trace minerals
Oily fish also contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and D. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of heart disease, some cancers and dementia; they are also thought to be helpful for brain development and in the treatment of depression.
Note: some oily fish contain low levels of toxic heavy metals. Pregnant women and those trying for a baby should limit their intake of tuna, shark and swordfish.

Legumes

These are vegetables which grow in pods. They include peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and peanuts.
They form quite an important part of the Mediterranean Diet and are a useful base for soups and stews, as well as being found in hummus and eaten on their own - for example, as baked beans.
They provide protein, carbohydrate, fibre and vitamins. They are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Fats and oils

When cooking Mediterranean-style meals, mono-unsaturated oils are used to replace saturated animal fats, such as butter and lard.
Olive oil is the traditional oil used in the Mediterranean region but rapeseed oil produced in the UK has similar uses and benefits.
Healthier mono-unsaturated oils are also found in olives, nuts, seeds and avocados.
Vegetables can be roasted with small amounts of olive oil. Olive oil is often used in dressings for salads. You can also dip bread into it as an alternative to using butter.
Overall, although typical Western and Mediterranean diets can have a similar total fat content, the Mediterranean Diet is high in health-protective mono-unsaturated fat. However, consuming too much fat of any type can contribute to obesity.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts such as almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, cashews and Brazil nuts, and also seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and poppy, provide protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, as well as being high in 'good' unsaturated fats.
Try to avoid salted nuts, as salt can raise blood pressure. As with all high-fat foods, consuming too much can contribute to obesity.

White meat

Lean chicken, turkey and other poultry are high in protein, vitamins and minerals. It is best to remove the skin and any visible fat.
When white meat is served in processed foods such as pies, burgers and fried chicken it is generally much higher in animal fat and so is not a healthy choice.

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