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Ever wondered why people from the Mediterranean appear to be healthier, happier and quite often live longer lives than the rest of us? Perhaps it’s the sun, or the wealth of natural beauty that adds an extra touch of vitality to life in southern Europe. While this is certainly a possibility, in recent years attention has come to increasingly focus on what people living in the region are consuming, i.e. what they tend to eat and drink on a daily basis.
The benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, a staple of the diet, are well known, but there’s much more to it than this. Both scientific studies and the testimonies of life-long adherents reveal the numerous ways in which a Mediterranean-style diet– one that is rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains — can help lead us to a longer, healthier life. The kicker? It’s also renowned for being one of the most delicious diets in the world.
Yes, that story you read about the 105 year-old Greek guy who attributes his long life to olive oil is, it turns out, probably true. While most of us believe a diet low in fat to be a healthy one, the Mediterranean approach is not quite so one-dimensional. Instead, emphasis is placed on choosing the right types of fat, namely those found naturally in delicious foods like fish, nuts and of course, olive oil. These are known as monounsaturated fats, which, when consumed in place of saturated fats (found in foods like potato chips, fatty meat and butter), can help reduce cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. A handful of pistachio nuts as a snack in between meals provides a natural, healthier alternative to candy bars or chips.
Furthermore, an abundance of fresh fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon mean that the mediterranean diet is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats help to protect us from heart disease too, whilst there is also evidence that omega-3 helps fight arthritis, eczema and cancer. Certain studies have suggested that consuming a considerable amount of extra virgin olive oil can help reduce the chances of breast cancer in women, with fat cells playing a key role in the production of oestrogen, a hormone thought to fuel the disease. In the spirit of this, try making your sandwiches with high quality extra-virgin olive oil rather than butter or processed sauces and spreads.
According to the mediterranean diet, every meal should be based around plant foods. This means that an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains play a key role in making the diet so effective. The mediterranean climate lends itself to this way of eating, with fertile soil and an abundance of sunlight allowing for a wide range of crops to be cultivated and consumed. Plant foods are bursting with anti-oxidants and fibre yet remain low in both calories and trans-fats. In summer especially, fruits are eaten at the end of every meal, often in place of heavier sweets. Favourites include succulent melon, peach and apricot, though such is the abundance of the region, and it could be anything in between.
Simply prepared vegetables like aubergine, courgette and bell pepper are a staple in the mediterranean, whilst we’re all familiar with the wonderful simplicity of a slow-cooked tomato sauce made with olive oil, garlic and herbs. Throughout the region, grains such as rice and pasta are often eaten as whole grains, making them low in trans-fats and high in fibre. Legumes, which are eaten in salads, stews and dips provide essential fibres and proteins while at the same time being generally delicious– think chickpea hummus, lentil-filled salads and warming bowls of white bean stew.
Although simplicity is one of the key features of the mediterranean diet, there is nonetheless a liberal usage of herbs and spices in the region. The Greeks love to use cinnamon and oregano, the Italians adore basil and in Spain they can’t get enough of paprika, or ‘pimenton’, as they call it. Studies show that herbs and spices such as these can have some truly amazing health benefits. Cinnamon is particularly high in antioxidants while basil, oregano and thyme have all been shown to help fight chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In addition, there is capsaicin, the ingredient that lends paprika and chill peppers their heat, which can help lower blood pressure when eaten regularly. Incorporating more herbs and spices into our diet can also be helpful as it leads to less of a reliance on salt or sugar to generate flavour in our meals. Try mixing a little paprika into your scrambled eggs in place of excess salt, or adding ground cinnamon to soups and stews to give them a boost in both flavour and vitamin content.
With lots of talk about superfoods such as kale, quinoa and acai, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the most nutritious foods of all are the ones that have actually been in our diets all along. Across the mediterranean garlic has for centuries been the base of most meals, with no salsa pomodoro, soup au pistou or steaming bowl of suquet going without a couple of cloves of the good stuff. That’s just how it is in the region. Science is just now catching up, with numerous studies citing the incredible nutritional benefits of this miraculous little herb. For starters, it is packed with manganese, a vital component in keeping our bones healthy, whilst vitamins b and c ensure our bodies run efficiently and protect us against immune system deficiencies.
There is also evidence to suggest that garlic helps combat blood pressure, dementia and strokes — leaving us us to live longer and healthier lives. The beauty of garlic is that you can use as much or as little as you want depending on your tastes. Plus, there aren’t many dishes that wouldn’t benefit from a flavour hit in the form of some chopped, sliced or crushed garlic. An impossibly simple dressing of olive oil, crushed garlic and lemon provides a classic mediterranean twist to any salad. Or perhaps you can try the classic Spanish dish sopa de ajo, literally garlic soup, which isn’t nearly as strong as it sounds and provides a big whack of garlicky nutrition in one go.
In the mediterranean, wine is seen as complimentary to food and is taken with most meals. Some of the world’s greatest wines are grown in the region, with Italy, Spain and of course France being major producers and consumers of it. As with any alcohol, abuse of wine can lead to serious consequences on your health, yet the benefits of a glass or two of red wine have long been known by the people of the mediterranean. The drink has been found to be rich in antioxidants which may help to prevent heart disease by driving up the levels of good cholesterol in our bodies.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that red wine can help us to manage our weight by blocking the formation of new fat cells, thereby reducing wider levels of obesity. It is no surprise, then, that countries in the mediterranean have some of the lowest figures for obesity in Europe, while problems such as binge drinking are limited, because wine is seen as something to savour as part of a meal, not as a way to get wasted. If you’re not much of a drinker, you can always try adding some red wine to tomato-based sauces for some extra acidity and depth.
A recent study by Columbia University that looks at the benefits of the mediterranean diet has produced some very exciting results. Apparently, it has been found that those who follow a diet rich in vegetables and consume a lower than average amount of meat and dairy products can slow down the brain’s ageing process by as much as five years by preventing brain shrinkage. According to Yian Gu, who led the study at the New York university, those people who didn’t stick to the mediterranean diet had a brain volume 13.1 millilitres lower than those who did. Particularly interesting are Gu’s findings concerning meat consumption. The study shows that eating less than 3.5 ounces of meat daily and replacing it with 3-5 ounces of fish per week can provide considerable protection against loss of brain cells, which is equal to three or four years of ageing. This is exciting news because it means that there is now further evidence suggesting that eating a healthy diet rich in fish, fruits and vegetables can actively slow down the ageing process, an idea that many in the mediterranean have held for generations. Although the study is by no means conclusive, the results suggest that diseases of old age such as Alzheimers and dementia may be prevented by a simple lifestyle change. Now that is definitely food for thought.