You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet, how it’s talked about as being just about the healthiest diet there is. But the Mediterranean diet isn’t a diet-diet, it’s a lifestyle choice (unless you’re actually from the Mediterranean, then it’s just life).

In its true context, “diet” means eating together, sharing food, talking about food, it’s all part of the experience, part of the cultural identity. So much so that in 2010, UNESCO recognised the Mediterranean diet as an ‘intangible unit of culture’ – that puts it on par with such heritage sites as the Acropolis, the ancient city of Florence and the Cathedral of Notre Dame as something to be conserved and respected.

The Mediterranean diet not a programme, more a way of thinking. It’s not modern, never gimmicky and it doesn’t involve starving yourself. It’s simply a sustainable way to give you and your family nutritious, satisfying meals…and maybe even lose a bit of weight if you exercise and have sensible portions!

Another key element is the social aspect: The word ‘diet’ comes from the Greek ‘Dieta’, way of life. That has little to do with slimming down or bulking up for sports (although in the right quantities it could help with both).

What is the Mediterranean diet? 

The Mediterranean diet is shorthand for eating more fish than meat, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans) and olive oil, while making some smart choices with your dairy.

There’s a lot of medical interest in the traditional Mediterranean diet, and a huge volume of credible academic literature around, reaching an international consensus. You can read as much as you like about how eating a Mediterranean diet can mitigate heart problems, lower risk of certain types of cancer, improve brain function, prevent Alzheimer’s, fight Diabetes and ultimately, extend your life long enough to have many happy years playing with your grandchildren.

There’s little disputing its worth doing…but what do you need to do?

Mediterranean diet basic principles

It’s all about cooking tasty food from scratch. Fresh seasonal produce, lots of vegetables flavoured with herbs and spices.

Aside from that, there’s fair bit of debate about what the Mediterranean diet actually is. After all, the Med is a big place. The cuisine of Northern Italy, Southern Greece and the Middle East are quite different, but they all have certain things in common: seasonality, sociability, moderation, variety and balance.

The way the British Heart Foundation puts it, the diet is “rich in fruit and vegetables, oily fish, such as sardines, and wholegrain cereals, with modest amounts of meat and low-fat dairy. One of the better-known aspects is the use of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil instead of saturated fats such as butter.”

Eating together is a huge part of Mediterranean culture

Did you know?

The original studies in the 50s and 60’s focussed on the heart health of people in Seven Mediterranean countries. (The idea came from a doctor in Naples who proudly reported there were almost no instances of cardiovascular problems in his hospital).

10 commandments of the Mediterranean diet

1) Cook from scratch, avoid processed foods

2) Eat fresh, seasonal and where you can, local

3) Get most of your protein from fish and pulses, with eggs and chicken in moderation

4) Get most of your energy from wholegrains and potatoes

5) Eat a bit of dairy every day, mostly cheese (sheep and goat is best)

6) Eat red meat occasionally (and mix it in with other ingredients)

7) Enjoy vegetables abundantly

8) Don’t be shy with the olive oil

9) Fresh fruit for dessert every day, have cakes, sweets every now and again

10) Drink lots of water…and a little wine, if you want to.

Eat a rainbow with bright, eyecatching salads

Fish and fresh herbs - a marriage made in heaven

Why is the Mediterranean diet so healthy?  

In a word, balance.

The Mediterranean diet doesn’t see one food as bad and another one as good, it’s not about the latest ‘superfood’ (although incidentally, the Mediterranean diet does champion several foods that have subsequently been labelled superfoods).

It’s a holistic approach, there’s no silver bullet solutions, no individual ‘hero products’…instead, the focus is on cooking and eating the best of what’s around (each season bringing a different delicious bounty)….plus a little of what you fancy does you good. The concept of cheating on your diet isn’t really a thing indigenous Med folk identify with. If you want a cake, eat one. Just don’t eat them all the

The concept is really well represented in the Mediterranean diet pyramid from dietamediterranea.com/

Eating seasonally is important for nutrition.

This is Mother Nature’s way to “eat a rainbow.” And the biodiversity of the fruits and veg that you eat is a big factor. In 2006, researchers from Colorado University found that subjects who ate many different fruits and vegetables exhibited “lower levels of DNA oxidation, an indication of free-radical damage, than those who ate larger amounts of only a handful of plant foods.”

Therefore, if you cook along with the natural backdrop of the seasons, taking inspiration where it pops up, you’ll be eating a broad range of antioxidants, helping guard against free radical DNA damage, one of the causes of cancer.

It’s got no processed foods in it

We’ve talked a little about what the Med diet has in it, but equally important is what’s missing: heavily processed foods are conspicuously absent. The traditional Mediterranean diet is all about cooking fresh food from scratch.

Authoritative nutrition site AuthorityNutrition says that, when following the Mediterranean diet, you simply avoid: “Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and other highly processed foods.”

Dessert is almost always fresh fruit. But you can enjoy a treat sometimes, there’s plenty of cakes and desserts all across the Med…

“Good fats” outweigh so-called “bad fats”

Your main source of energy will be carbohydrate (about 55%) but a good chunk of the calories in the Mediterranean diet comes from fat, ranging from around 30-40% But according to The Olive Oil Diet by Dr Simon Poole and Judy Ridgway, fat isn’t such a bad thing.

Fat gets a bad rap.

We’ve all heard of saturated fats, unsaturated fats and essential fatty acids i.e. Omega 3 in oily fish and Omega 6 in nuts.

Caution: hard science

This excellent beginners guide explains how becoming ‘saturated’ in hydrogen makes a fat molecule’s carbons a straight line; healthier fats come with their carbons in L-shapes and U-shapes. But not all saturated fats are bad, it depends how long the chain of carbons is too…e.g. Traditional Mediterranean cheeses are made from goat and sheep cheese, which is medium chain, so is considered less fattening than cow cheese, and even advantageous in promoting weight loss.

Oleic Acid, also known as Omega 9

The majority of the fat in the Mediterranean diet is Oleic Acid, a lovely L-shaped monounsaturated fat also known as Omega 9.  And while the Omega 9 oleic acid in olive oil isn’t a single silver bullet solution, it’s is a major factor in how healthy Mediterranean diets are. It’s all about having a high ratio good/no so good fats… if you want the fine details on how that works, read Dr Simon Poole’s fine book, The Olive Oil Diet.

Olive oil with everything: the jewel in the crown

A 2013 study on the effects of a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease (CVD) showed that “patients at high risk for CVD, who undertook a Mediterranean diet with plenty of extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events over 4.8-years of follow-up.”

Of course, knocking back litres of olive oil in a diet otherwise made up of processed foods wouldn’t help…but as part of a healthy diet, EVOO’s got a lot to give. In fact, the powers of extra virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet are one of the few things there is a global nutritional consensus on.

Rich in antioxidants, from the all those fruits and vegetables, even herbs and spices

Eating a rainbow is easy in the Mediterranean where the world’s finest produce literally grows on trees… and all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants.

Without going OTT with the science, antioxidants are present in plants because making their energy through photosynthesis can create damage to the plant’s tissue (oxidisation). Antioxidants are there to keep the plant healthy – and they help us out with that too. The medical community’s consensus is that plant-based diets protect against oxidative stress-related diseases.

And herbs have a part to play in that.

This 2010 study showed that fresh herbs are best, with thyme and oregano particularly potent. Another 2010 study went even further, examining 3100 foods for their antioxidant content: it concluded that “Spices and herbs include the most antioxidant rich products in our study, some exceptionally high. Berries, fruits, nuts, chocolate, vegetables and products thereof constitute common foods and beverages with high antioxidant values.”

So when you’re cooking, don’t be shy with the spices!

Copious spices

The Mediterranean diet describes the ratios to eat certain foods in to get the maximum benefit

11 rules for sticking to the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean approach doesn’t count calories, and you can eat anything you want. Perfect, right? But in a diet without prescribed rules or boundaries, that’s wholly flexible and tailorable, you might be wondering, where do I start?

Here’s 10 rules of thumb for making it work for you.

  1. Ditch the butter – it’s all about extra virgin olive oil from here on in

Extra virgin olive oil is a rich in monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, also known as Omega 9. A balanced diet needs fat in it, not least because it has a satiating effect that helps you feel full for longer.

Fat has been demonised in the past, but according to The Lancet, eating a Mediterranean diet high in healthy fat does not lead to weight gain.   

‘Good fats’ like olive oil and avocado are not low calorie… but they’re not associated with increasing cholesterol, in fact they contribute to lowering it.

Fearing fat is old hat. In the Lancet study, a 5-year analysis of the Mediterranean diet, there was evidence for less weight gain and lower waist circumference in the group that got the majority of their energy from healthy fats. 

Olive oil is the jewel in the crown: monosaturated fats help you feel satisfied, and are great for heart health

Green oil

2. Build your plates with the Harvard ratio

It’s not just UNESCO that advocates the Mediterranean diet. Harvard University’s School of Public Health has long taken a keen interest, and the Med diet is the main inspiration for its published Healthy Eating Plate, designed to help people make healthier choices.  

Havard’s teachings are very simple:

1/2 your plate should be filled with vegetables

Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. All colours, all shapes and sizes…and of course, in the Mediterranean, most of the time they’d be cooked in or drizzled with olive oil.

If you’re looking for inspiration… Artichokes, aubergine, broccoli, beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, celeriac, chicory, courgettes, cucumber, fennel, kale, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, mustard greens, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes*, pumpkin, purslane, radishes, shallots, spinach, sweet potatoes and turnips offer a wealth of delicious nutrition.

*The Harvard Healthy eating plate says potatoes don’t count, just as the NHS says potatoes don’t count towards your five a day…but that doesn’t mean they should be outlawed.

Prepared simply, without deep frying, they are a good source of carbohydrate, and very satiating. In fact, some research shows them to be twice as satisfying as wholemeal bread. See the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition’s ‘Satiety Index’ here, for foods that help you feel full up.  

 1/4 should be whole grains

Think whole wheat pasta, brown rice, oats, quinoa, kaniwa, barley, siyez… these release energy more slowly than refined grains like white rice or white bread.

1/4 should be protein

Red meat is fine every now and again, but your focus should be on chicken, fish, legumes (beans) and nuts.

Use in Moderation (or use lashings!)

Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with nutrients, good fats and antioxidants. You’ll be wanting to use it not just for cooking but for dipping, dressings, vinaigrettes etc – extra virgin olive oil goes a long way to making all those vegetables taste great.

Extra virgin olive oil can be infused with all manner of flavours,

A word on plate size: If you are using the Mediterranean diet to lose weight, then portion control will be important, even though it’s not about counting calories. The simple answer? Use smaller plates.

Want Mediterranean food inspiration? We'll send you ideas once a month.

Harvard University has been inspired by the Mediterranean diet in it's own healthy eating guidance

3. Eat a bit of cheese, but do consider sheep or goat

Calcium is important for bone and heart health, and a great source is cheese and yoghurt. It’s worth noting that many of the traditional Mediterranean cheeses are not made from cows’ milk.

Many of traditional Mediterranean cheeses come from the milk of sheep, like Halloumi (also a little goat milk), Feta, Manchego, Ricotta, Roquefort, Pecorino (which actually means ‘from sheep’)…

The cheeses the original subjects of the 1950s study that discovered the Med diet was so healthy, they ate cheese often, and it would have been mostly goat or sheep.

It’s thought that because goat and sheep cheese contain Medium chain rather than long chain fatty acids, they can be advantageous to weight loss, as they are more easily soluble in water

4.Eat fresh fish at least twice a week

Your fish should preferably be oily: the low incidence of several killer diseases among Eskimos has been attributed to the anti-inflammatory properties of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – most often referred to as Omega 3 – in the Eskimo diet.

Examples of oily fish – salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring, anchovies, tuna. You can grill, roast bake or pan fry oily fish, so they’re highly versatile

5. Go wholegrain, the whole time

Refined carbs should be replaced as far as you can. Carbs are fine, but it’s the type of carbohydrate that’s most important, much more important than simply looking at the calorie content. Essentially, processing and refining removes fibre content, which we all need as it helps us feel full and maintains blood sugar levels, as well as reducing the risk of cardio-metabolic problems.

6. Have red meat occasionally, if you really must

This study into Red Meat Consumption and Mortality examines over 100,000 people and 23,926 deaths. It suggests that daily red meat eaters and particularly, those eating processed red meat, are at greater risk.

The same study “estimated that substitutions of 1 serving per day of other foods (including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) for 1 serving per day of red meat were associated with a 7% to 19% lower mortality risk.”

7. Keep an eye on what vegetables are in season

Eating seasonally is the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. Traditionally there would have been times when they had more of the certain fruit or vegetable than they could ever eat, and at other times they simply weren’t available.

Modern life doesn’t quite work that way anymore, but it’s the natural way, how things were meant to be. Shopping with a seasonality mentality will help you ‘eat a rainbow,’ and not just eat the same old vegetables all year round. Your taste buds will thank you for it. As well the rest of your body.

8. Fill your cupboard with spices and your window sills with fresh herbs

Herbs and spices are rich not just with flavours but with antioxidants too. Not only will they make your dishes interesting, keeping your taste buds happy to eat healthy day-in-day out, but they are full of antioxidants in their own right.

Get a store cupboard going with a host of Mediterranean herbs and spices, and mix it up.

Looking for inspiration?

Anise, basil, bay, Chermoula, chilli, coriander, cloves, cumin, fennel, garlic, Harissa, marjoram, mint, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, sage, sumac, tarragon, thyme, Ras El Hanout, Verbena Harissa, Zahter, za’atar.

9. Have a glass of wine if you want one

The traditional Mediterranean diet typically includes a glass of wine or two with meals.

Relaxing with your friends and family is VITAL. If this means having a couple bottles of beer or glasses of wine, than that’s just as much a part of a balanced healthy life style as eating your greens. Let balance be your watchword and you won’t have ‘slipped’ or ‘cheated’ on your ‘diet.’

10. Do exercise you like

Keeping active is important, but doing exercise you don’t enjoy can get demoralising.

There are lots of exercise programmes that condense high intensity exercise into a short period of time, which is a great way to get results.

The Mediterranean mentality would be more about choosing something you actually enjoy, a team game maybe – it’s so much easier to stay motivated if you’re having fun as you work up a sweat. And remember, doing chores or jobs round the house burns calories too…

Yes of course you should exercise, this is something to discuss with your doctor.

11. Eat with people, share, make it fun

In Mediterranean countries, the joy of simple delicious is universal. You should be having fun while you cook, and fun while you eat. Take your time, talk a lot, laugh a lot…and savour every mouthful.

Always remember that the Mediterranean diet is communal thing: handing down traditions from one generation to another, being neighbourly, bringing family and friends together.

As much as anything, these factors make it a healthy way to live.

Weight loss disclaimer

If you’re thinking about making dramatic changes to your lifestyle, please discuss it with a doctor first, especially if you’re going to be ramping up the exercise.

What we’re talking about is general principles for healthy eating, cutting out processed foods and cooking from scratch – how you turn that into a weight loss programme is up to you!

 

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