The focus on the Mediterranean diet began in the 1950s, when researchers found there were huge differences between the longevity of people from Mediterranean countries and the rest of the world. The diet stems from the island of Crete in Greece yet the cuisines of all countries in the Mediterranean region encompass healthy foods such as legumes, vegetables, nuts, fruit, seafood and, of course, olive oil.
There is a large body of evidence that shows the Mediterranean diet is protective of diabetes, significantly reduces risk of many disea
ses namely cardiac disease, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been widely documented that those who enjoy Mediterranean style eating also have longer life expectancy.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterised by:
- An abundance and wide variety of plant foods (fruits, vegetables – particularly leafy greens, wholegrain cereals, nuts, legumes)
- Olive oil as the principal source of fat
- Minimal use of other added fats
- A low intake of red meat, especially processed high fat meats
- A moderate intake of dairy foods (mostly feta cheese & yoghurt)
- A moderate to high intake of fish
- A moderate intake of wine, normally taken with meals
Overall the diet produces low amounts of saturated fats and includes good sources of mono unsaturated fats and omega 3 fats, boosting its capacity to fight heart disease. It also rich in plant antioxidants including Vitamin A,C and E from tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and spices used in cooking vegetables, meat and fish. Olive oil is one of the key ingredients across all Mediterranean regions; the health benefit has been attributed to its predominant fat, oleic oil and antioxidant profile.
A recent review from the University of South Australia examined the amounts of key foods and nutrients within the traditional Mediterranean diet. They found on average it contains 40% energy from fat (20% monounsaturated, 6% poly unsaturated and 8-10% saturated), 12-16% energy from protein and 40-45% energy from carbohydrates. The main characteristics were found to be an olive oil intake of 3-4 tablespoons per day, along with up to 6 serves of vegetables, 3 servings of fruit and 6 servings of cereal products daily.
This style of eating, with the exception of a higher fat intake, is closely in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines. With a large body of evidence showing the benefits of this diet on health and longevity, adapting your eating to a more Mediterranean style is well worthwhile!
So how can you eat more Mediterranean? Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos has researched the role of the Mediterranean Diet in diabetes, heart disease and the metabolic syndrome as an Associate Professor (and APD) at La Trobe University. Her cookbook ‘The Mediterranean Diet’ includes the following tips, in addition to some delicious traditional Crete recipes:
- Use olive oil as the main added fat. If watching your weight – limit to 60ml/day.
- Consume vegetables with every meal. Include 100g leafy greens and 100g tomatoes each day in addition to 200g of other vegetables. Also use herbs in cooking.
- Include at least 2 legume based meals per week
- Include at least 2 servings (150-200g each) of fish per week. Choose oily fish such as salmon or sardines.
- Choose red meat less often and consume in smaller portions, aim for 1-2 serves per week.
- Include fresh fruit daily, and dried fruit & nuts as a snack or in desserts
- Eat yoghurt every day and cheese in moderation
- Include wholegrain breads & cereals with meals
- If you drink wine, consume in moderation (1-2 glasses/d) and enjoy with meals
- Limit added sugars; enjoy sweets or high sugar fluids only occasionally
An example day Mediterranean style..
- Breakfast: Rolled oats with skim milk topped with fresh blueberries, crushed walnut, honey & cinnamon
- Lunch: Toasted wholegrain sourdough topped with grilled eggplant, roasted capsicum, olives and feta cheese
- Dinner: Baked Snapper with baked potato and salad of steamed green vegetables.
- Snacks: Greek yoghurt with walnuts & honey, 1 medium fruit, 1 small sesame snack bar
The best part about this diet is that it is delicious! There are many great recipes available that don’t require too much effort. If you are organised and prepared, adding a few Mediterranean-style meals to your diet can be quite simple and the benefits are certainly worth it!
The Mediterranean Diet, Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. Pan Macmillan Australia 2013
Defining the Traditional Mediterranean Diet; A literature review. C Davis. Nutrition & Dietetic 2014; 71 (Supp 1): 68-74