Is your typical weekly diet helping or hindering your health?
There are so many health and wellness diets to choose from, so what sets the Mediterranean diet apart?
Firstly, it has been well researched for its health benefits; probably one of the most widely researched diets in recent years. And secondly, it is a long term diet and lifestyle approach rather than a diet which is designed to be a short term treatment for a particular health problem.
Additionally, it is easy to follow, focuses on unprocessed wholefoods and doesn’t need any fancy ingredients or superfoods to make it taste good. It is for these reasons that I often talk to my clients about adopting a Mediterranean-style diet to improve their health.
It is important to note that whilst this diet is good for many, for some people, a more targeted diet is required to address a specific health concern.
What does the Mediterranean diet consist of?
This diet, as the name suggests, follows the traditional eating patterns of those living in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy. (This is not to be confused with the Mediterranean tourist diet which might look more like gyros and hot chips, pizza, Nutella pancakes, ham and cheese paninis or giant bowls of pasta…but I digress!)
The true Mediterranean diet consists of mainly fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, olive oil, herbs and spices. So essentially it is a plant based diet. Every meal is based around plants.
Add in some seafood at least two to three times per week and moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese and yoghurt. The emphasis of getting your protein from plants and seafood means you get the benefits of a diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and omega 3 fatty acids.
Red meat and sweets are eaten less often, perhaps only a few times per month. This of course is a big differentiating factor between the Mediterranean diet and the typical western diet.
In terms of liquids, the focus is on lots of water (and black coffee and red wine in moderation).
Instead of adding lots of salt to meals, the diet utilises herbs and spices to add flavour. Not only do these herbs and spices make your meals taste great, they have medicinal qualities to support good health.
How would you benefit from the Mediterranean diet?
Improved cardiovascular health
Research has established that conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease all benefit from adopting a Mediterranean diet. It has been shown to have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system and potentially reduce your risk of living with or developing these types of health complaints in the future.
The diet includes low amounts of animal fats and trans-fats, low amounts of sugar and high quantities of fibre rich foods which all play a part in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system.
Research has identified through studies in Spain and the Netherlands that adherence to a Mediterranean diet, rather than a typical western diet, improves fertility rates for both spontaneous conception and IVF.
Increasing plant protein and reducing animal protein, eating a diet high in antioxidants, and maintaining a healthy weight all support optimal reproductive functioning.
Reduced risk of developing a chronic disease or illness as you age
Chronic diseases such as diabetes, autoimmune diseases, dementia and conditions such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are all on the rise in western countries. The western diet is unfortunately high in processed and sugar-rich foods as well as hydrogenated and trans fats (found in processed or fried foods and baked goods) which can play havoc with many of your body systems resulting in chronic diseases and illnesses.
Being plant based, the Mediterranean diet provides countless phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals for keeping your body healthy. The avoidance of packaged and processed foods and a diet low in refined sugar is what makes this diet a good long term lifestyle diet for optimal health.
What does a Mediterranean diet shopping list look like?
Provided you’re filling your shopping basket with lots of vegetables and fruit, you are already on your way to eating a Mediterranean based diet. However, below is a list of items you will need to get you started:
Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil – used for cooking and as a dressing on salads
In season fruits and vegetables – living in Australia might mean you’re not always eating typical Mediterranean fruits and vegetables, however make use of local, in season produce which will be rich in nutrients and have a lower carbon footprint. Make sure you include some garlic and onions in your basket as they feature regularly in Mediterranean cooking. (Garlic and onion do not agree with everyone as they are high in FODMAPs…an example of where a more tailored diet is required).
Wholegrains – often used as a base for meals, wholegrains might include, millet, bulgur, polenta, barley, buckwheat, couscous and wholemeal breads and pastas. You could also include brown rice and quinoa.
Nuts and seeds – a great snack option or as part of main meals. Nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and sesame seeds all provide a variety of essential vitamins and minerals.
Legumes and beans – again a base for meals, legumes and beans provide protein as well as fibre and other important vitamins and minerals. Cannellini beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas are all great examples of foods you can incorporate into your diet.
Herbs and spices – to flavour your foods instead of using salt add some herbs and spices to your shopping basket. Parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, basil, saffron and mint are just some you could include in your meals to reduce the amount of salt you consume.
Seafood – Eating seafood a few times per week will provide you with protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Again, choose seafood that is locally sourced and wild caught by line (where possible). Sardines are a great option to get a large dose of omega 3 fatty acids and taste delicious with a garnish of olive oil, crushed garlic, parsley and lemon.
Dairy products – It’s all in the name, however include some natural Greek yoghurt, unprocessed cheese, particularly sheep and goat feta in your shopping basket. Good quality dairy (i.e. minimally processed with few ingredients) is a good source of protein and may be consumed in moderate amounts.
Red meat – as you will only be eating red meat a few times per month, choose good quality, grass fed or organic produce where possible.
What does a sample daily menu look like?
Breakfast – Greek yoghurt with a handful of nuts and seeds, and topped with fruit of your choice. For added protein, you could add in another grain such as quinoa.
Morning tea – A piece of fruit with a handful of nuts and seeds
Lunch – Mixed salad leaves and chickpeas topped with herbs, a sprinkling of feta and dressed with olive oil and lemon.
Afternoon tea – Vegetable sticks with tahini, tzatziki or hummus dip
Dinner – Minestrone soup with barley rather than pasta
Supper – Fruit
Making dietary changes can often be very challenging, particularly when you are changing the habits of a lifetime. Therefore, picking one meal, perhaps breakfast, can be a good place to start.