by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
The Mediterranean diet started in Italy thousands of years ago and then spread to the neighbouring regions of Greece, Spain and other areas of the Mediterranean. This diet is now promoted around the globe for its benefits to health and longevity.
The diet began to take hold worldwide in the 1990s, when a Harvard University doctor showcased it as a diet beneficial for improving heart health, losing weight easily and clearing up many other health issues.
The Mediterranean diet is higher in fat than the standard western diet, but it is lower in saturated fat. This diet is usually a ratio of 30 percent complex carbohydrates, 40 percent healthy fats and 30 percent quality protein foods.
This balance is somewhat ideal to keep weight gain and hunger under control and is also a good way for the body to remain in hormonal balance, which means our mood is more likely to stay positive and relaxed, with energy levels up and physical activity easier.
Most Mediterranean’s typically eat three meals a day that are filling, with plenty of fibre and healthy fats. Many Mediterranean people have their biggest meal in the middle of the day instead of at night, which gives them the opportunity to use that food for energy while they’re still active. By the time they go to bed, that main meal is digested, which ensures a better night’s sleep.
The Mediterranean Diet encourages us to: eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil; eat modest amounts of poultry and eggs; eat small amounts of red meat rarely; and avoid sugary foods and drinks, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and other highly processed foods and additives.
To summarise…it’s a very healthy diet!
Considered by many nutrition experts to be one of the most heart-healthy ways of eating, the core Mediterranean Diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory, plant-based foods and healthy fats.
There has been much research on The Mediterranean Diet and studies have shown that it can help to protect against the development of heart disease, metabolic complications, depression, cancer, type-2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Let’s have a closer look at the attributes of the Mediterranean Diet:
Low in processed foods and sugar
The diet is primarily plant based and includes olive oil, legumes like peas and beans, fruits, vegetables, unrefined cereal products, and only small portions of animal products (that are organic, or pasture raised and locally produced).
The Mediterranean Diet is very low in sugar and usually free of GMOs or artificial ingredients like preservatives and flavour enhancers or high fructose corn syrup. For something sweet, Mediterranean eaters like to enjoy fruit with some Greek yoghurt.
Beyond the plant foods, another major staple of the diet is locally caught fish. Fish like sardines and anchovies are commonplace sea-foods they enjoy.
Helps to maintain a healthy weight
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on consumption of healthy fats while keeping carbohydrates relatively low and includes high-quality proteins such as fish and grass-fed, free-range meats that contain healthy fatty acids that help you feel full, manage weight, control blood sugar and improve mood and energy levels.
But if you are vegetarian or vegan then legumes and whole grains, especially if they are soaked and sprouted, also make good choices.
Improves heart health
Research shows that those eating the traditional Mediterranean diet, including plenty of mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 foods, have significant reduction in heart disease risk. Many studies have concluded that a Mediterranean-style diet can decrease the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent.
Helps prevent cancer risk
A plant-based diet with loads of fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which helps to fight cancer by providing antioxidants, stopping cell mutation, protecting DNA from damage, lowering inflammation and delaying tumour growth.
Studies hypothesise that olive oil may be a natural cancer cure and decrease the risk of colon and bowel cancers. By reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, a Mediterranean diet can help to reduce cancer risk.
Prevents and treats Diabetes
The Mediterranean diet can help prevent diabetes because it controls excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels. High insulin makes us gain weight and keep the weight packed on despite dieting.
By regulating blood sugar levels with a balance of whole foods which contain healthy fats, quality sources of protein and some carbohydrates that are low in sugar, the body burns fat more efficiently and has more energy. A low-sugar diet with plenty of fresh produce and fats is a natural diabetes treatment.
Protects cognitive health and mood
Cognitive disorders can occur when the brain isn’t getting enough dopamine, an important chemical necessary for proper body movement, mood regulation and thought processes. Mediterranean’s enjoy plenty of healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts, plus plenty of anti-inflammatory fruits and veggies which are known to help dopamine levels and prevent cognitive decline.
Mediterranean foods help to counter the harmful effects of exposure to toxicity and free radicals which can contribute to impaired brain function. This is one reason why those eating the Mediterranean diet are shown to have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
Probiotic foods like yogurt and kefir also help to build a healthy gut, which we now know is tied to cognitive function, memory and mood disorders.
Mediterranean lifestyle to reduce stress
The Mediterranean lifestyle encourages people to spend time in nature, get good sleep and come together with friends and family to bond over home-cooked healthy meals, which are all great ways to reduce stress and help to prevent inflammation.
Generally, people in the Mediterranean regions spend a lot of time outdoors in nature and put aside time to laugh, dance and tend the garden.
- plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruits. Mediterranean eaters will commonly eat up to 9 serves a day e.g. 3 serves with each meal, or 2 serves with breakfast, 4 serves at lunchtime and 3 at dinnertime.
- moderate amounts of nuts and seeds
- legumes and beans – especially lentils and chickpeas used to make hummus
- herbs and spices – like oregano, rosemary and parsley (instead of salt)
- eating wild-caught fish and seafood at least twice a week
- high quality pasture-raised poultry and eggs
- probiotic-rich kefir or yogurt consumed in moderation
- red meat consumed about once weekly or on special occasions
- plenty of fresh water
- replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil
- enjoying meals with family and friends
- getting plenty of exercise in the fresh air
- community orientated people
Olive Oil in the Mediterranean diet
A big part of the claim to fame of the Mediterranean diet is the use of copious amounts of olive oil. Olives are very nutritious fruits, and olive trees have been growing around the Mediterranean region since about 3,000 B.C.
Olive oil has been well researched and is highly acclaimed. It is very high in compounds called phenols, which are potent antioxidants capable of lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage. Olive oil is mainly comprised of monounsaturated fats, the most important being Oleic acid which is known to be extremely heart-healthy.
How much olive oil should you consume daily? While recommendations differ depending on your calorie needs and diet, anywhere from 1-4 tablespoons can be beneficial. Those in the Mediterranean region commonly consume between 3-4 tablespoons a day, this being the amount that many health practitioners recommend to their heart disease patients.
Not all olive oils are created equally. Unfortunately, many commercial manufacturers do not harvest or process their olives properly, which can kill many delicate nutrients and turn some of the fatty acids rancid or toxic. Some olive oils are heated to a high degree in production, which reduces their health benefits. These are usually clear or lighter in colour than the cold pressed ones that are normally more of a green colour.
Look for labels that indicate your olive oil is ‘extra-virgin’ and ideally cold-pressed.
Olive oil is delicate and not necessarily the best oil for cooking because it has a relative low smoke temperature. Use cold-pressed olive oil in its raw state as a salad or vegetable dressing to benefit from its natural vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
- An abundance and variety of plant foods should make up the majority portion of most of your meals.
- Use whole-grain bread, cereal, whole grain rice and pasta (preferably gluten free to make it easier for your body to digest).
- Keep almonds, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Use natural fresh ground peanut butter, rather than those with hydrogenated fat added. Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or a spread for bread or crackers.
- Use olive oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. You can use it to cook at low heat, or use coconut oil for high heat dishes.
- Herbs and spices make food tasty, are rich in health-promoting substances, and can be used in place of salt or to reduce salt.
- Try eating fresh or water-packed tinned fish twice a week. Go for tuna, salmon, trout, sardines, and herring. Grilled fish tastes great, especially with a few herbs and spices. Avoid fried fish, unless it’s sautéed with a small amount of olive or coconut oil.
- Cut back on red meat; instead, substitute fish and poultry. When you eat red meat, choose pasture raised, ensure it’s lean, and keep portions small (about the size of your palm). Also avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats that usually contain additives such as nitrates and loads of salt.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
When 75-year-old Victor came to me, he had recently left the hospital following a suspected heart attack. While there he had all manner of tests which showed elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and he was mildly overweight, especially around his belly. Fortunately, he did not have a heart attack, but it gave Victor a scare.
The doctors wanted to put him on medication, but Victor was a stubborn Greek man who said that if it was his time to die then so be it, but he wanted the opportunity to do what he could with his diet to see if things could change. He came to see me because his daughter was a client and we had great success with her treatment.
When we met he was very opinionated about health and wellbeing, saying that he felt doctors only wanted to push drugs onto him. I told him that it wasn’t my place to say whether he should do anything differently, but I honoured his choices to look after his body.
Being of Greek origin he knew all too well about the diets ‘back home’ but had unfortunately slipped into the ways of his new country and drank way too much beer, ate loads of bread, pasta, and meat and stopped exercising when he retired. Not that he did much exercise when he worked as a taxi driver, but he did walk for 10-15 mins every chance he could to maintain good circulation in his legs because he was seated for much of the day.
As Victor was Greek, I spoke to him about the famous Mediterranean diet; he sat back and looked up and sighed, knowing that this was what he should do. His elderly parents lived a Mediterranean lifestyle and were apparently still fit and healthy. It didn’t take much to convince Victor to change his diet and way of living. I didn’t need to coach him on what to eat, but I suggested to do more exercise than just lift the TV remote.
So off he went and bought a big tin of extra virgin olive oil, a big jar of olives, some sun-dried tomatoes and re-established his veggie garden. He grew veggies in the front yard and while they were establishing, he shopped at his local farmers market. He also bought fresh fish from the local co-operative fish shop and was excited to be on his new diet.
I didn’t see him for a several months, but when he came back he looked great. He had lost quite a bit of weight, especially around his belly and he even had a few muscles developing in his arms from his gardening work. He looked pretty good for a 75-year-old. He had been to his doctor for more tests and his cholesterol and blood pressure were normal.
He brought me a bag of produce from his garden. He was so proud, and I shared with him some of my overgrown basil herb so he could make pesto for the upcoming family gathering on the weekend.