There is increasing evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean-style diet is one of the healthiest. Dr Tom Butler identifies ways to make your diet more Mediterranean-style and how it can benefit your health
The Mediterranean diet is hailed to be beneficial for numerous aspects of well-being, such as heart disease, cancer and various mental health conditions. Despite it being called a “Mediterranean diet”, there’s no reason why we can’t adopt it in the UK.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean is a geographical area so food patterns differ greatly from country to country. For example, it’s highly unlikely that if you live in Italy you would eat the same foods as someone living in North Africa. That said, most people think of the traditional Mediterranean diet as one that has plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, peas, beans and lentils, oily fish and more unsaturated fat than our typical UK diet.
“Homemade soups are a great way to pack in more vegetables„
What health benefits are linked with the Mediterranean diet?
Perhaps the greatest support for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are linked to cardiovascular health. We know this from numerous scientific research studies that have recommended and investigated the effects of eating a Mediterranean-style diet.
In one famous study, The Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED), participants were asked to follow a Mediterranean-style diet with either the addition of nuts or extra-virgin olive oil. In this study, those people eating nuts or olive oil showed a considerable reduction in cardiovascular problems that needed medical help. Similarly, another famous trial, the Lyon Diet Heart Study, showed just how powerful the Mediterranean diet could be. This study tested the effectiveness of a Mediterranean-style diet which contained plenty of root vegetables, green vegetables, fish, fruit and small amounts of red meat on preventing coronary events in people who have already had a heart attack. This trial was stopped early because the diet showed such a clear benefit and it would have been unfair to withhold this information from the other study group!
What can we take away from these studies? Make sure your diet has plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and seeds, and focuses on foods containing more of the healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil and nuts.
Sound familiar? It is, but it shows that you don’t need to make overly complicated decisions about food to eat a more Mediterranean-style diet.
How to eat a Mediterranean-style diet in the UK
We must be realistic as we’re not living in the Mediterranean. However, many foods that make up the Mediterranean diet such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and olive oil are common in the UK. The important thing is to eat more of them. As an example, the traditional Mediterranean diet tends to contain more fruit and vegetables than the current 5-A-Day recommendation.
In the UK, most people don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. For example, teens, on average, eat less than three portions a day and adults don’t do much better. It’s recommended that everyone eats five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – that’s the 5-A-Day target. There are plenty of easy ways to do this. For example:
- add some extra veggies such as sprouts or broccoli to your roast dinner
- sneak extra vegetables into stews and casseroles
- pop some tomatoes and other salad items into your usual sandwich filling
A portion of fruit or vegetables is 80 grams, so if you’re making a stew for four people, it needs to have 320 grams of vegetables. Homemade soups are a great way to pack in more vegetables. To make things even more convenient, you can portion your soup and freeze what’s left, so you have a ready-to-go, healthy meal. Add a small glug of olive oil and a little pepper for seasoning and hey presto, you’ve increased your intake by at least two to three portions and, as an added bonus, you’ve also added some healthier monounsaturated fat.
“A portion of nuts is about one handful or 30 grams„
There’s plenty of great kitchen devices that you can use to make vegetables the main star of the dish. One such item is a spiralizer. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a hipster thing to own but they’re fantastic for making homemade coleslaw, fine vegetable ribbons and slices and vegetable noodles. Spiralised veggies are quick to prepare and only need a couple of minutes to cook. For example, replace traditional egg noodles with spiralised carrots and courgettes or add them to salads and stir fries.
UK adults eat approximately 150 grams of fish a week – that’s about one portion, so there’s definitely room for improvement. The current recommendation is to eat two portions of fish a week, of which one should be ‘oily’ because eating oily fish is consistently associated with improved heart health.
Many types of fish count as oily fish and, portion for portion, many varieties provide more heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids than salmon. In addition, some commonly eaten types of fish are becoming endangered so by choosing different varieties, you may well be helping the survival of some species too. Tinned oily fish such as mackerel or sardines are really useful as they can be stored in your kitchen cupboard for months and then eaten in sandwiches and salads and used in plenty of recipes that state you need to use fresh. Tinned sardines are one of my cupboard staples.
Nuts are frequently eaten as part of the Mediterranean diet. Raw or plain-roasted nuts are excellent sources of protein, soluble fibre and the heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. Try eating them as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. You can also use ground nuts by mixing them into your breakfast of porridge or yogurt.
Nuts are a great example of a food where you should look at the type of fat they contain, not just the total amount. The total fat will likely be high, but the majority of this will be from healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. We still should be careful about how much we eat though – a portion of nuts is about one handful or 30 grams.
EAT UP AND ENJOY!
It’s important we delight in what we’re eating. Food is pleasurable and eating should be an enjoyable experience. This is kind of a big deal and most self-styled nutrition gurus who tell you to go and eat protein balls dusted in quinoa seem to forget this!
Eating food with others is an important component of the Mediterranean diet and, contrary to common opinion, making healthier choices and changes to the food we eat does not need to be expensive. The bottom line is to eat more fruit and vegetables, fish and nuts then add a decent glug of olive oil and the job’s done.
References available upon request.
Dr Tom Butler is a UK Registered Dietitian and Registered Nutritionist, and is the programme leader of the undergraduate Dietetics degree at the University of Chester. He is an international review panel member for the Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition Cardiovascular Disease pathway.