What do the Italians, Greeks, Spaniards and Frenchmen all have in common? They all follow a similar diet, called the Mediterranean diet, which emphasises healthy fats found in, e.g., olive oil, nuts and seeds. They also eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, bean and whole grains; and moderate amounts of fish, chicken, eggs, and dairy. They are good with portion control and limit intake of red meat and sweets. Wine also features prominently, in moderation, especially during mealtimes, which are positive and social occasions. There is also regular physical activity in their daily routines.
Compared to a Westernised diet, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to protect against heart disease, increase lifespan and promote healthy ageing. It also supports healthy weight loss – people who changed over to this diet maintained their weight loss over an extended period. They also had less chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, Parkinson’s) as they got older.
How to switch to a Mediterranean diet
To change over to a Mediterranean diet, make fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains the basis of your meals. These are good sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre. When cooking pasta, add vegetables instead of meat to make it more plant-based. Incorporate beans and lentils when you make salads or add it to brown rice and barley. And don’t forget about the whole olives!
Limit red meat to a few times a month. To reduce intake of saturated fat, have chicken instead. Always remove the skin and fat from chicken and choose the white (drier) meat portions. Improve your intake of omega 3 fatty acids by opting for fish at least twice a week. Fish is ideal for quick meals, like pasta and shrimp marinara or couscous with tuna or sardines. For variety, you can also use eggs in small amounts. Control your portion sizes of all proteins to a hand palm-sized amount.
Avoid frying foods and use olive oil for cooking and baking or as a salad dressing. Make your salads interesting by tossing in some pine nuts and slivers of almonds, and don’t skimp on the avocado. You can also add nuts to your green beans or cooked spinach.
What snacks can I have on a Mediterranean diet?
For snacks, you can make small amounts of trail mix with dried fruits, whole oats, nuts and seeds. Make hummus by pureeing chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and sesame seeds together, or add tzatziki to your dips and sandwiches. Have low-fat yoghurts and cheeses in moderate amounts daily for good bone health.
Limit your intake of sweets to a few small portions a week only. Rather snack on fruit or have it as part of a dessert (e.g. baked cinnamon apples/pears with low-fat custard). Don’t forget to use plenty of herbs and spices, since they add interesting flavours and aromas to your meals, whilst also reducing the amount of salt you need to use when cooking.
Make sure you have some kind of physical exertion daily. Go for a brisk walk, do some gardening, clean the house or take a bicycle ride. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Limit sugary drinks to once a week or less.
Remember the Mediterraneans encourage being social, so do eat your meals with your family or friends where at all possible and eat at the dinner table versus watching television. Although you are allowed to have wine with your meal, limit your intake to one glass for women and two glasses for men. Bottoms up and enjoy!
To learn more about nutrition, have a look at our Specialised Nutrition Course. For more information, please follow this link.