The Mediterranean diet made simple

You may have read about the Mediterranean diet and its posited health benefits. Or perhaps your GP or nutritionist has recommended that you follow it for heart health, lowering cancer risk, diabetes prevention or its cognitive benefits. But what exactly is it? And what do you need to know to get started?

The diet is inspired by the common foods eaten and healthy habits of peoples based around the Mediterranean - think Greece, Spain, Portugal, southern France and Italy. Just saying those names conjures an image of a table heaving in brightly coloured vegetables, cheeses, sweet-smelling breads and spicy olive oil.  

But although the Mediterranean diet does not entirely replicate the intake of any one region in particular, it is thought perhaps to most closely resemble the characteristics of the diet traditionally consumed in Crete.

Studies suggest that the diet and lifestyle of these people have led to lower incidents of the chronic diseases commonly seen in countries where the Western diet of processed foods dominates.

However, despite the exact area not being definitively identified, there is a commonality in foods groups and frequency of consumption of those food groups between the Mediterranean regions.  

Key characteristics of a Mediterranean diet 

  • Relatively high intake of healthy fats, mostly from plant sources such as extra virgin olive oil, avocados and olives. Daily use of extra virgin olive oil is positively encouraged!
  • High intake of vegetables, perhaps aiming for three to nine servings of a variety of brightly coloured vegetables each day. Think tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, squashes, carrots, green leafy veg - make sure you eat the rainbow here.
  • Approximately two portions of fruits per day - apples, berries, peaches, pears, plums, etc.
  • Don't forget to include other great fibre-containing plant foods such as beans, lentils, pulses, chickpeas
  • Wholegrain cereals are advocated - as un-processed as possible, such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc.
  • Moderate consumption of fish and poultry – including two portions of oily fish per week, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines.
  • Reduced consumption of red meat and dairy – looking for lean cuts of red meat, and moving to whole-fat dairy, such as feta cheese and Greek yoghurt.
  • Water should be your go-to drink on the Mediterranean diet. Look to include approximately two litres of filtered water per day, across the course of the day. And the diet does include an amount of red wine – around one 125ml glass of red wine per day, but with some drink-free days.

Studies have linked these dietary changes to several health benefits. Why is that?

Healthy fats 

The Mediterranean diet is low in trans and saturated fats, but high in monounsaturated fats (think olive oil and nuts) which studies show may be beneficial for heart health. Additionally, the inclusion of oily fish twice per week can give us extra help in getting the omega-3 fatty acids that we need for optimal brain and eye health.

Increased fibre 

A diet such as this with good helpings of veggies, whole grains and legumes packs a fantastic fibrous punch, perfect for our digestive health, and studies show this may be beneficial in reducing the risk of bowel cancer, cardiovascular disease and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Great range of vitamins and minerals

Fruits, veggies and legumes can give us a fabulous range of vitamins and minerals, all of which are necessary for the optimal functioning of our bodies. Plus lean meats are a great source of nutrients such as iron and B12 to ensure our energy levels remain tip-top.

Low in refined sugars

While fresh fruits may provide natural sugars, this diet is low in refined sugars. Refined sugars, such as those found in cakes, biscuits, sweets, etc., are not encouraged, as diets high in refined sugars have been linked to obesity and an increased risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

As you can see, the Mediterranean diet is a way of eating, not a meal plan. It encourages us to embrace healthful foods, single wholefood ingredients that can be made into truly delicious meals - adding enjoyment to the list of benefits it brings.

And remember - the Mediterranean diet is not just about food. Its advocates also recommend involving regular physical exercise, sharing meals and socialising with others, and generally taking time to enjoy life! Imagine you’re in the midst of a great Mediterranean fiesta! Eat well, move lots and enjoy life. A perfect reason to incorporate a Mediterranean way of life into our daily habits.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Alex Allan, Registered Nutritional Therapist, BA (Hons), DipBCNH, mBANT, regCNHC

Alex Allan is a Registered Nutritional Therapist. She is passionate about food and cooking. Helping her own health concerns through Nutritional Therapy sparked a passion and led her to re-train as an NT after more than 20 years working in children's publishing. She writes regularly on her blog (alexallannutrition.co.uk/blog) and on Instagram.… Read more

Written by Alex Allan, Registered Nutritional Therapist, BA (Hons), DipBCNH, mBANT, regCNHC

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