The Mediterranean diet differs from a typical western diet in that it is high in fruit and vegetables and low in animal fats and processed foods.
Natural foods are best, as Mother Nature intended and this belief has been nurtured for centuries by the peoples of the Mediterranean who enjoy low rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The area is blessed with a warm and sunny climate, ideal for growing fruits, vegetables and nuts while the warm seas team with a variety of fish and shellfish.
These conditions are less suitable for the rearing of domestic animals, such as cattle and pigs and the meat will not stay fresh for long.
In contrast, the western diet, dependent as it is on high meat consumption and particularly sugar and salt found in processed foods, is responsible for a greater risk of cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Changing to a Mediterranean diet will help you live longer and improve your chances of a healthy retirement free from long term medication.
The World Health Organisation recommends that we eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day and is easily achievable following this diet.
Variety is the key to healthy and enjoyable meals; try to eat fruit and veg that are in season – they will be fresher and cheaper as well as ensuring a year-round variety of foods.
Italians and Greeks will often use herbs and spices in place of salt for flavouring – oregano or basil go well with tomatoes, dill or fennel with fish, bay and nutmeg with milk and egg dishes, parsley and thyme in salads and stews.
Regularly eat fresh or frozen vegetables which should be cooked either by steaming (broccoli steams well) or in just a little water.
TIP: Some chefs suggest merely sweating vegetables in their own moisture. Use pans with tightly fitting lids and cook over a low heat shaking the pan often to prevent sticking. You will find the flavour is much more concentrated.
Vegetables contain fibre, antioxidants and vitamin C but some have particular health benefits;
Garlic – helps prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and the common cold.
Broccoli – contains useful nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, calcium and is rich in fibre. All these help prevent cancers, especially of the digestive tract.
Tomato – contains the major carotenoids, alpha and beta carotene, lutein and lycopene which act as antioxidants for healthy blood. Tomatoes also help to prevent prostate and pancreatic cancer; particularly when eaten with broccoli.
Chilli Pepper – said to lower blood pressure by causing the arteries to expand thereby increasing blood flow.
Legumes such as peas and beans contain essential nutrients and feature in dishes such as chilli con carne, cassoulet and so on. They can also be ground to create dips such as hummus which is made from chickpeas.
When including fruits in the diet try to eat them fresh. Prepare 2 or 3 different fruits and combine them in a fruit salad for interest – don’t be afraid to try fruits that are new to you. A favourite dessert in our family is mixed berries cooked with apples and served with Greek yoghurt.
Don’t be too concerned with keeping all your dairy products low fat as a good heart diet should include them.
Research at the Croydon University Hospital casts doubt on the widely held belief that dairy products and eggs can be detrimental to health.
They are now shown to be good for us and should be consumed (as with everything we eat) in moderation.
Use mono-unsaturated oils for cooking and dressings. Rapeseed oil, olive oil and sunflower oil are best.
Cereals – Most cereals, especially when unrefined (wholemeal) are rich in fibre which keeps the gut healthy and guards against cancers. They also contain proteins, vitamins and minerals.
Particularly useful are oats which have been shown to promote healthy bacteria in the lower intestines – providing similar benefits to Probiotics.
Spaghetti of course is a much loved staple of Italian cuisine and comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes; freshly made or dried. Manufactured from wheat and eggs, it also gains the health benefits associated with the latter.
Eat meat in moderation – choose fresh or frozen but avoid processed foods. These often contain unhealthy saturated fats and high levels of sugar and salt.
Poultry without the skin (which contains saturated fats) is low in fat and calories. There are probably more ways to cook chicken and poultry than any other foodstuffs.
Just make sure they are well seasoned with herbs, spices and vegetables while keeping salt and sugar to a minimum.
All fish is good, especially oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout and fresh tuna which contain heart healthy omega 3 oils.
Shellfish are also good although care should be taken with such as oysters and mussels which can absorb harmful substances from their marine environment. They can also be the cause of stomach upsets if they are not really fresh.
Keep processed foods such as crisps as an occasional treat – instead snack on dried fruits and unsalted nuts. The same applies to cakes and biscuits.
Nuts such as almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts while the seeds of pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and poppy are good sources of fibre.
They can be used in cooking (as can their oils) and sprinkled over salads. I always start the day with nuts and seeds sprinkled over our breakfast cereals.
Nuts are high in unsaturated (good fats) and help in the fight against diabetes and heart disease by lowering bad cholesterol levels in the blood.
Wine and especially red wine has been shown to aid digestion and care for the heart. Try to keep within the guidelines of 3 small glasses per day for men and 2 for women.
Drink several glasses of water during the day to keep hydrated and avoid sugary drinks which are a major contributor to obesity, resulting in an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
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