How tempting is the thought of the Mediterranean diet? Can you even hear the words without being invited to a vision of glowing sunset over a sparkling sea or golden sands edged by fragrant vegetation?
Are you taken to a place of relaxed tranquil warmth or of lively socialising? Maybe you even see a glass of red wine! And to hear that the Mediterranean is good for your health might seem to be the proverbial icing on the cake. But what is the Mediterranean diet? Is it in fact the pizza or pasta with some scattered olives and sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by a glass of red wine? Can a Mediterranean diet really support our health?
It should be no surprise if the mention of Mediterranean brings to mind images of the sea, because the countries of the Mediterranean Basin surround the Mediterranean Sea.
Twenty-three countries are included in the Mediterranean region, in Southern Europe, the Levant and North Africa, characterised by mild, rainy winters and hot dry summers. These countries are not unified by a single diet but diets are varied in the Mediterranean region.
Also, like so much of the rest of the world, it is true to say that the modern diet in some of the Mediterranean countries has evolved from their traditional patterns of eating.
Is there a prospect that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet might elude us in this mystery of its definition? What is the reality behind a Mediterranean diet to support good health? These questions are answered by the facts of evidence-based research.
Soon after World War II, the Seven Countries Study established the reputation of Mediterranean eating patterns because of the good cardiovascular health of residents on the island of Crete. Many further studies support the evidence of benefits of this pattern of eating for a range of health conditions, including protection from diabetes, defence against chronic diseases, reducing inflammation, lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease, supporting weight loss and improving fertility.
The basis of the Mediterranean Diet
Knowing that the reputation of a Mediterranean diet is justified, what is the food that defines the diet? The basis of the diet featured in the research is the eating patterns on Crete in the 1950s.
The fundamental principle is to include core foods to eat every day: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats such as olive oil. Additionally, portions of fish and seafood should be eaten twice a week. Portions of dairy foods and eggs should be moderate. Poultry should be eaten only occasionally and red meat less often.
The Mediterranean diet is often referred to as the Rainbow diet. How apt therefore that this article is published in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, at a time when we are using the rainbow as a symbol of hope, thanks and support for the wonderful work of the NHS. And also a time when, perhaps, we are increasingly aware of the need to support our health by optimising our diet to strengthen our immune defence systems, with the antioxidants of vegetables and fruit from the rainbow of colours of the Mediterranean diet.
Adopting the Mediterranean diet, not just during this pandemic but on a permanent basis, is a certainly good starting point.
Olive oil, herbs and red wine
Many aspects of the Mediterranean diet have been the focus of studies to find the answers underlying success of the diet. Olive oil has been a feature in research into the special ingredients which are so beneficial.
The lifestyle has been considered, with the value attached to the social occasion of a meal, activating the parasympathetic nervous system to promote effective digestion of food.
The herbs (such as oregano, parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme) may have qualities which enhance the therapeutic effects of the food.
Even the red wine, which may be drunk to accompany food in moderate quantities, has come under the spotlight of research. Is the secret of red wine revealed by the powerful antioxidant, resveratrol, found in the skins of red grapes?
The varied aspects may each contribute to the value of the Mediterranean diet, although it is unlikely that the amount of resveratrol in red wine is significant for therapeutic purposes. It is highly likely the vegetable intake (providing fibre and high levels of antioxidants) has a significant impact, and the role of synergy between the different aspects contributes to the beneficial effects.
Diet has a powerful role in supporting wellbeing as we hear more and more about the impact of diet and lifestyle on the development of disease. The evidence has shown that the Mediterranean diet, typified by the eating patterns on Crete in the 1950s, is likely to be beneficial for health.
Adopting the principles of the Mediterranean diet is likely to be supportive of your health. If you suspect you have a medical condition, however, it is important to consult your doctor for advice, diagnosis and treatment. A personalised nutrition plan, based on a holistic assessment of your health, may support you to improve your health.
It seems, then, that the Mediterranean diet is not about the pasta and the pizza. Neither is it about the icing or in fact about much cake. However, the olives and the sun-dried tomatoes feature in this eating pattern with a basis of a range of traditional foods which do not have to be confined to the Mediterranean region. And the tip for red wine? If you wish to enjoy an occasional glass of red wine, drink it with your meal.
Additional research and information on the Mediterranean diet: oldwayspt.org