What makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy?

Best kept secrets of the Mediterranean diet revealed!


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


05 April 2019

1. Eating slow

As I frequently remind our readers, it isn’t just what you eat but also how you eat that counts. People living in Mediterranean climates are renowned for eating patiently, in company and taking time to enjoy their food, (far from wolfing it down without it touching the sides, which is more of a habit in Western societies!). 

Interestingly, research has suggested that even when people who live generally healthier lifestyles have a treat, by being in the habit of eating it more slowly, they may help to protect against some of the adverse effects. French people ate a McDonalds Big Mac meal over a period of over 22 minutes vs. their American counterparts who wolfed theirs in just 14 minutes.1 Could this be having a bearing on body weight and digestive symptoms such as indigestion? Quite likely!

Putting it into action

My advice is to give meal times the time and attention they deserve; sit down at a table, with some company if you have family or friends around, and take in the look and scents of your food - getting your mouth watering whilst making your dinner is also a bonus, another reason to get cooking! 

These habits all help to prep your stomach for what’s to come. Then, work on chewing slowly and deliberately, preferably reaching 20 chews per mouthful. This will not only help to improve digestion functions, but also, as you eat slower you’ll feel fuller soon, and this will mean you’re less likely to overeat - another tick if you’re trying to lose a pound or two.

2. Olive oil 

Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and for good reason. This oil is not only delicious when used in cooking or when drizzling, but it is also boasts an array of health benefits. One of the main benefits of olive oil seems to be on the cardiovascular system – pretty major and definitely worth noting as rates of heart disease continue to be on the rise (although survival rates have improved).

Research has shown that using olive oil in our diets for just 2 months could help to improve blood pressure readings, cholesterol levels and inflammatory markers,2 very impressive indeed!

Putting it into action

People often assume that cheaper vegetable oils such as sunflower oil are the best go-to option, but actually, olive oil tends to be a better option all round. Using it in medium temperate cooking is fine (this covers most methods such as sautéing, baking or roasting), and it’s of course perfect for drizzling too. One of my top tips is not to shy away from fats. We need a good dose of fats with each meal to help support our metabolism so don’t be afraid to go for that extra drizzle and reap the benefits!

3. Garlic

Garlic is another ingredient which is used generously in a typical Mediterranean diet. It’s often used in the bases of sauces, dressings and added to oven baked dishes to give an extra dose of flavour. 

But, other than adding a lovely flavour to dishes, could it also be offering some health benefits? Much like olive oil, garlic is also thought to help support our cardiovascular system and lower the risk of high blood pressure, inflammation and clogged up arteries.3

Putting it into action

Garlic is much easier to incorporate into your diet if you’re cooking from fresh – onion and garlic make and excellent base for almost any dish! Crush or slice your garlic for different strengths and textures and roasting a garlic bulb in the oven creates a delicious sweetness. Get experimental and it’ll soon become second nature to you to include some garlic in most meals.

 4. Vegetables 

Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which element of the Mediterranean diet makes it so especially healthy, my guess is that it’s the combination of different healthy elements which make it so advantageous. 

One other element of this diet which is worth mentioning (plus it’s most definitely achievable) is the inclusion of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Interestingly, another key point is the types of, and quite simply, the variety of these that is included. They tend to include lots more sour and bitter tastes, something we’re generally lacking in Western societies. Bitter tasting vegetables especially, such as greens, artichoke or cruciferous veg, will not only supply you with key nutrients, but the taste helps spur your digestion into action, meaning we can digest out food better and make better use of all the nutrients our diet provides – neat!

My Top Tip:


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Putting it into action

If you want to up variety in your diet, my advice is rather than sticking to the same routines each week with dinners and snacks, try and mix it up a bit and add new ingredients to your basket you perhaps haven’t had before. This will mean you experience a wider range of tastes, textures and nutrients too. Variety really is key!

5. Oily fish

Rather than being too heavy on meat, Mediterranean diets tend to include more fish, particularly oily varieties including sardines, mackerel and fresh tuna. 

Oily fish is rich in heart healthy omega-3. Whilst copious research suggests omega-3 is good for your heart,4 there’s also reason to believe it is also beneficial for our brain function,5 plus, for managing general inflammation around the body.6

Putting it into action

As above, incorporating more oily fish into our diets is definitely something you might want to consider working on, especially as you get older. Planning meals in advance, each week, is an easy way to try to work on incorporating more fish into your regime. 

However, if fish really isn’t your thing, don’t worry. There are also plant-based sources of omega-3 available including walnuts, flaxseeds (don’t forget about their oils too) and avocados.

6. Red wine

Last, but not least, you may have wondered, because red wine is included generously in a typical Mediterranean diet, if this is something you’d also be able to include guilt free. 

Now, whilst I don’t recommend actively adding alcohol into your diet in a bid to benefit health-wise, there are ways you can approach alcohol to exert the most benefits. After all, red wine does contain some antioxidants including resveratrol, which may have some benefits in the body.

Putting it into action

When it comes to alcohol we need to consider a few key points: firstly, how much you are consuming. Secondly, the quality of the alcohol; sipping on some good quality red wine of an evening is going to be more beneficial than glugging aimlessly on some poor quality vodka. 

Finally, how you drink your favourite tipple. Drinking it slowly alongside a nutrient packed dinner is they way forward, rather than binge drinking on an empty stomach. Read my blog on how to include alcohol for health, for more information.

 

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12930475

2.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230722114_Olive_Oil_Polyphenols_Decrease_Blood_Pressure_and_Improve_Endothelial_Function_in_Young_Women_with_Mild_Hypertension

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26869811

4. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/166/5/608.short

5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12035-010-8162-0

6. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2002.10719248

 

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