The Mediterranean Diet – Looking at Some Facts
The Mediterranean Diet is actually much more of a way of life than it is a diet, even though the name may suggest otherwise. The emphasis is not on weight loss, rather on keeping healthy.
Although it was originally inspired by eating patterns in the 1940s and 1950s in southern Europe, it only rose to prominence in the 1990s. Much more so than previously, the last few decades have seen an increased interest in dietary and lifestyle issues, mainly because obesity and cardiovascular problems have become bigger issues. But the diet is more than a health check. It has been a way of life around the Mediterranean Sea, where meal times are often seen as an opportunity to strengthen existing family ties or even forge new friendships – in short: mealtime is the perfect time to socialise, whether it’s with family and friends, members of one’s community, or even with strangers.
In certain areas more bread and pasta are consumed than in other parts, such as Italy, and therefore the diet can be high in carbohydrates, which, if you want to lose weight, may not be so easy. Unless, of course, you lead a fairly active lifestyle which includes exercise.
What exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?
This is a diet found in the countries – as the name suggests – around the Mediterranean. Even UNESCO, in 2010, included the diet in its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list for the following countries: Croatia, Greece, Crete, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Portugal. People who have studied this diet and its benefits will tell you it is more about – in a way – who you are, than following strict rules and weighing calories. It is also interesting to note that the diet may vary from country to country – even from region to region in the same country – depending on the produce that is grown in a specific area, or in some cases because of ethnic differences or economic diversity.
The Main Ingredients
- Typical foods consumed by those following this diet include the following: fruit, a variety of vegetables, legumes such as beans and peas, nuts, unrefined cereals (mostly whole grains) some steamed fish and other seafood, limited chicken and wine. Some dairy (mainly cheese and yogurt) and eggs are consumed – and very little red meat and sweets.
- One aspect of the diet that stands out is the high consumption of olive oil – preferably extra virgin – that contains plenty monounsaturated fatty acids (as opposed to butter which contains saturated animal fats). You will find that oil is dribbled over almost every salad, which normally contains green leaves and tomatoes among the ingredients. Most often it is used as an alternative to butter and margarine. Olive oil is also used for cooking and baking a variety of dishes in certain regions, as opposed to butter and lard; the latter, for instance, is often used to cook with in Northern Italy. Avocado oil is another source of good plant oil.
- Lots of water is recommended. So is red wine in moderation – try not to have more than a glass per day though. Coffee is allowed, and so is tea. But stay away from sweeteners and fruit juices which are high in sugar, unless of course you squeeze and drink your orange juice fresh, with nothing added.
It is worth mentioning, too, which foods should best be avoided: any added sugar such as those found in soda drinks, ice cream and table sugar, refined grains, refined oils and processed foods.
Following the Mediterranean Diet
The easiest way to ‘train’ oneself in terms of the diet is to see it as a healthy daily routine and not to think of it as a diet as such. Besides, you certainly don’t have any reason to go hungry as you would on most other diets. Also, if you smoke, give up – and set aside enough time to exercise.
If you accept that vegetables, fruit, whole grains and fish make up the bulk of your daily food allowance, you certainly are ‘there’. Individuals will always have different appetites, so each one decides how much he or she eats.
Make sure you include the main groups every day – as listed below – and avoid those which are better to cut out.
- Popular vegetables include, typically, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, onions and cucumber.
- Fruit most often included in the diet are oranges, apples, pears, grapes, peaches, melons, figs and strawberries.
- Nuts in the diet include hazelnuts, cashews, almonds, seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower.
- Whole grains that one should try and include are whole oats, barley, brown rice, rye, whole wheat and pasta. For those who are a bit more weight conscious, try and limit the bread and pasta.
Never punish yourself. Have a steak or something sweet from time to time, but regard it as a treat. Then enjoy it! Even at restaurants there is no reason to feel you can’t enjoy a meal. Stick to fish and salads. Ask the chef to fry your food in virgin olive oil and stay away from refined grains – eat whole grain bread. Instead of butter, dribble olive oil over it.
Studies suggest that people who follow a diet rich in vegetables, nuts and oils are a third less likely to die early, as opposed to those who consume red meat and butter, for instance. This makes the Mediterranean Diet a better option than those typically favoured in the UK and US – in fact most western countries with their emphasis on foods high in animal fats and sugars. It is claimed that obesity and type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s can be much better controlled by an eating pattern such as the Mediterranean Diet. There also seems to be good news for the over 50’s with reports that aging brainpower may be boosted by following the diet.
In the Spotlight
It has emerged that there seems to be a definite change in Mediterranean eating patterns in recent years, away from the previously healthy ones which made the headlines. It seems that mass tourism may partly be to blame. Visitors on holiday from the UK and the US, specifically, are known for their preference for fast food, red meat and refined flours. Also, the typical ‘Western’ diet allows for the consumption of fast foods much more than a traditional diet, such as the Mediterranean. It stands to reason that Europe’s touristy Mediterranean would change its eating habits to please the visitors who contribute billions to the economy of these parts every year.
This trend has also shown increased levels of obesity among even teenagers. The associated danger of diabetes and heart disease because the younger generation today eats less fruit and vegetables, but much more deep fried food and sweets, is worrying. Further, life is different: As times are changing people in these parts have become less physically active since their livelihood no longer necessarily depends on working the fields and going out to sea for a full day’s work.
Figures indicate that in Greece, where seven in ten adults are now considered overweight or obese, the diet has decreased by up to 70% in recent times, according to Luis Serra-Majem, head of the International Foundation of Mediterranean Diet and by almost 50% in Spain.
Now, it seems, ways must be found to reintroduce this diet that seems to have so many benefits, from physical health to aspects of socialising.