An introduction to the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet largely consists of fresh foods. There are no packets in sight and it tends to be comprised of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, oily fish, organic meat (although meat is limited, especially red meat), nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil (and lots of it – used for both drizzling and cooking), plus plenty of water and a touch of wine alongside meals.
Here I run through in more detail how this style of eating could help improve your digestive health and how you can start to adopt some of these healthier habits from the comfort of your own home.
Why so good for your stomach?
Nowadays, digestive symptoms such as acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion are common complaints. For many, a trip to the doctor will see them be put on some antacid medications such as PPIs and they’ll be sent on their merry way – often not many discussions are to be had regarding the possible causes or how diet or lifestyle might be having an influence...
Interestingly, from a naturopathic stance, we suspect that people often struggle with too little stomach acid, (and/or the acidic contents of our stomach getting into the wrong places), rather than too much acid being at the root of the problem. As we get older and in times of stress, stomach acid levels decrease (possibly affecting many of us in that case), but is it possible our modern-day diets are also putting extra demands on our stomachs? High protein, high fat or highly processed foods take more digestive power to breakdown. That’s why many people openly admit that their symptoms get worse after consuming rich, or red meat-heavy meals, yet can struggle to change their habits.
This might be part of the reason why the Mediterranean style diet seems to be a little gentler on your tum. Rather than being rich in hard-to-breakdown meats, the protein elements of their typical diet consists more of plant-based proteins including legumes, chickpeas or nuts, and fish is a more common feature rather than meat – again this requires much less digestive power.
In research, this theory has also been put to the test and the results were quite fascinating. When PPIs were compared to a Mediterranean style diet for reducing symptoms of acid reflux over a course of 2 years, guess what? The diet came out on top1. And this makes sense! PPIs may in some cases be an effective short-term solution to help let your stomach heal, but they certainly shouldn’t be used in the long-term, and it seems diet definitely comes up trumps for managing those symptoms.
Interestingly, one of the other key elements of a Mediterranean style diet which has been somewhat lost in more Western diets is a bitter taste. Bitter tastes tend to come from vegetables including rocket, chicory and artichoke (we’ve replaced many of these with sweeter tastes over time). However, it’s these bitter tastes which help spur the stomach into action and get it releasing all the gastric juices we need to effectively digest our latest meal.
Why so good for your gut?
As I’ve now run over why a Mediterranean diet might do your stomach good, we don’t want to forget about the lower digestive tract. Problems in this area more often than not give rise to symptoms such as bloating, which can be problematic for a large majority of people.
Firstly, one of the key issues we can tackle by bettering our diet is constipation. In a recent A.Vogel survey, up to 1/3 of people reported that they were constipated (going to the loo less than once per day is a sure sign), and you can bet more people than this are just blissfully unaware. One of the key contributing factors when it comes to constipation is dehydration – people simply don’t drink enough water! We want plain, still water and plenty of it, to help keep your gut moving along nicely. Drinking branded waters loaded with sugars, sweeteners or counting your caffeinated drinks as water just doesn’t cut it and will only risk adding to your problems.
Next, we need a good amount of dietary fibre in our diets to help keep the bowel healthy and frequently moving. Consuming enough fresh foods is the best way to achieve this. Loading up on too many processed foods which have been effectively stripped of their fibre content will only leave you feeling bagged up and sluggish.
Finally, we should consider the effect our diet can have on the balance of bacteria in the gut, called the microbiome. New research has suggested that copious amounts of red meat could have a detrimental effect on the balance of your good gut bacteria2, and we know on the flipside of this, by including lots of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, you’re naturally including lots of fibre and pre-biotic rich foods; the very foods your good gut bacteria will thank you for.
Top tips to implement some of those positive changes
1. Think about how you eat
The Mediterranean style diet isn’t just about the types of foods it includes, but also how the people go about eating these foods. They tend to make more of a fuss of meal times than we do (but in a relaxed way of course!). Sitting away from a table isn’t an option; no TVs are in sight and food is prepared and spread out for all the family to share and enjoy. Time is taken over food, and people eat whilst relaxed, taking the time to chew their food and enjoy the different tastes and textures on offer. By adopting these healthy habits you’re more likely to eat more slowly, eat less, make better use of the nutrients your food contains and hey – you may even enjoy your food a bit more!
2. Watch your meat intake
Personally I think good quality meat can make up an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet for some people; however, quality is key, as is considering how much you are consuming. Processed meats are thought to be particularly detrimental to our health and guess what? They aren’t a common feature in the Mediterranean diet – go figure! Limiting red meat can also be kinder to your digestive system – and aim to eat organic and free-range meat wherever possible.
Then, there’s portion control. Many cultures use meat simply to flavour dishes rather than being one of the main components of the meal, and it seems this is the way to go. Load up your meals with a wide variety of veggies instead and swap in legumes or fish for some tasty meat-free alternatives.
3. Eat more veggies
Eating more vegetables is another tip from me. Warm and cooked veggies are particularly gentle on your digestive system, not to mention the fact they are very nourishing. Trying to shop for seasonal foods, and getting a wide variety of fruit and veg each week, will mean your nutrient intake will be greater. The extra fibre you get from upping your veggie count is thought to be anti-inflammatory and will help to support natural detox processes in your body.
4. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats
Even to this day, many of us are still trying to get out of the habit of assuming ‘low-fat’ is the way to go. Extra virgin olive oil is thought to be one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet to which many of the health benefits are attributed. Olive oil is rich in heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fatty acids which are thought to be beneficial for your heart and beyond. Even your liver will thank you for some healthy fats; and if this organ is working optimally, it will help to support the balance of healthy cholesterol levels throughout your system.
Research has verified that a diet rich in good quality olive oil is preferable to a ‘low fat’ diet for a number of health outcomes, which isn’t surprising in the least3. Low-fat means just means more of something else; no doubt unhelpful carbs or sugar in many cases!
5. Manage your drinks
For many, drinks can be one of the main downfalls of a typical diet. As a nation we tend not to drink enough water and instead, load up on sugar-laden, sweetener-loaded or caffeine-laced drinks. Aim to drink at least 1.5l of plain, still water daily, and you can supplement this with small amounts of good quality caffeinated drinks or alcohol as you see fit. Just be sure to take them in moderation and in combination with your meals to help avoid any detrimental side effects.