The Mediterranean Diet: the Whole is Greater by Martina Watts

We already know the Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. Recent research also suggests it slows down brain shrinkage as we age, and may help prevent cognitive decline.

So what are the main components of this traditional diet that supply people in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece with such wide-ranging health benefits? The Mediterranean diet - compared to the typical processed Western diet - is rich in plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, olive oil, nuts, fish, moderate red wine consumption and little red meat.

There are no mega-doses or single ‘miracle’ ingredients. This diet contains thousands of active compounds that influence a whole range of metabolic pathways in the body. Put simply, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Food is really just information - it influences your mood, your hormones, your immune system and your gut flora. Food even influences the way your genes express themselves. Therefore, it makes sense to provide our bodies with the right kind of information. Growing and production methods matter, too.

Olive oil is one of the healthiest components of the Mediterranean diet, and pressed from the flesh of whole, ripe olives. The first pressing of olives delivers the prized ‘extra virgin’ olive oil, and ’virgin’ olive oil is extracted from the second pressing. If the oil is not labelled ‘virgin’, it has been filtered, refined and probably heated and deodorised - consequently suffering nutrient losses and other adverse changes.

Virgin olive oil is linked to lower cholesterol levels, and stimulates the flow of bile and fat-digesting enzymes. High in beta carotene, vitamin E and other protective antioxidants, it is exceptionally rich in oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fat.

Here are some of the diet principles you can easily follow, whether you live in the Mediterranean or not. Apart from being nourishing, cheap and healthy, this way of eating is also truly delicious!

·      Avoid processed, refined foods and look for seasonal, locally grown fruit and vegetables. Aim to make plant foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, grains) the main ingredients at mealtimes.

·      Eat fish and seafood at least twice a week, poultry once a week or less and red meat only a few times a month.

·      Staple foods such as rice, wholegrain bread, potatoes, pasta or couscous are always accompanied by plenty of vegetables.

·      Drizzle vegetables and fresh salads with virgin olive oil. Add tomatoes: research suggests that olive oil improves the absorption and antioxidant activity of lycopene, the red pigment, in tomatoes.

·      To flavour dishes, use garlic, onions, bell peppers and plenty of herbs such as thyme, basil and oregano.

·      For snacks, eat fresh fruit with nuts.

·      Resveratrol has been identified as a key ingredient in red wine. You can find the same anti-oxidant compounds in purple grape juice – without the intoxicating effects of alcohol!

Martina Watts MSc Nut Med is a Registered Nutritional Therapist. For more inspiration on how the food you eat can promote your health, please see “49 Ways To Eat Yourself Well” by Martina Watts (available from Dyke Road Natural Health Clinic or visit www.thehealthbank.co.uk).

To book an appointment with Martina click here

marisa Guthrie