Mediterranean-style eating has long been thought of as healthy, but now even mainstream medical experts are singing its praises – claiming that it can protect against many chronic diseases.
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that a diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, beans, wholegrains, nuts and olive oil – key ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine – could make a significant difference in reducing the risk of illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia.
Juliot Vinolia, clinical dietitian and consultant nutritionist at iCare Clinics, Dubai, believes that we should all be adopting the Med diet because “avoiding intake of high-purine proteins, which are found in red meat, lowers the risk for developing arthritis by reducing levels of uric acid in the body”.
Instead of eating fast food that is high in saturated fats and leads to obesity, Vinolia says it is advisable for people in the UAE to switch to a Mediterranean diet, which comprises healthy food options that contain plant-based protein, such as legumes and low-fat dairy products.
In addition, the Med diet is rich in proteins that activate brown adipose tissue, which is instrumental in burning calories and aiding weight loss, says Vinolia.
UK-based GP Dr Simon Poole, who runs a non-commercial website (www.tasteofthemed.com) to promote the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, concurs.
He says that the Med diet is effective in preventing chronic diseases because healthy food choices improve cholesterol, blood sugar levels and general well-being.
Vinolia adds that the Mediterranean diet is helpful in boosting the immune system because it’s based on “gut-friendly bacteria from fermented foods like yogurt, and soluble fibre-rich foods such as bananas, garlic, asparagus and onions, which support the growth of probiotic bacteria.”
The thinking is that, rather than waiting until health problems arise and then seeking medical help, people need to be encouraged to prevent illness more, with eating well being a key component.
Dr Poole says, “With Alzheimer’s cases expected to rise threefold over the next 30 years, and a healthy diet and lifestyle clearly dramatically reducing the risk of developing dementia, we feel there’s compelling evidence for more investment in education and health promotion around healthy diet and lifestyle.”
Dr Poole says that the reason the Med diet is so healthy is because it’s “high protection and low damage”.
This means it contains relatively small quantities of undesirable saturated fats, but high amounts of vitamin, mineral and antioxidant-packed fruit, vegetables, olive oil and fish oils.
“We are now beginning to understand why all the elements in the Mediterranean diet come together,” he says.
“It’s a balance of polyunsaturates, high monounsaturates in the form of olive oil, low saturated fat because red meat is consumed only once every three or four weeks, and low-glycaemic-index carbohydrates.
“It’s no one thing,” he continues. “And instead of vitamins being boiled out of vegetables, they are absorbed into the olive oil as part of the cooking process.
“It’s a sophisticated relationship between all these foods and the way they’re prepared and eaten slowly.”
Traditionally families across the Med always eat together and a leisurely meal can last two hours, as everyone from the young to the old grazes on several small courses.
Dr Poole points out that the prevalence of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes has historically been significantly lower in Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Italy, than in other parts of the world.
This general trend has been confirmed in numerous studies, linking it with the diet of the region. On the other hand, the sedentary lifestyle in the Middle East along with the popularity of fast food has lead to “a steady rise in child obesity, diabetes and renal diseases,” says Vinolia. “Also there is a high intake of red meat on a daily basis, which adds to the problem.”
Experts claim that changing to a Mediterranean diet can lower cholesterol and aid weight loss, hence reduce the incidence of heart disease and diabetes.
“Engaging in physical activity for at least 20 minutes four times a week in combination with the Mediterranean diet can be an ideal solution for the UAE in preventing such epidemics,” says Vinolia.
So why aren’t we all eating Mediterranean? There are several barriers that prevent many people from doing so, Dr Poole believes.
“It involves cooking from scratch and [using] natural, unprocessed ingredients, but we’re in a culture of buy-one-get-one-free and there are more likely to be reductions on unhealthy products than there are on healthy ingredients,” he says.
“Our culture seems to resist the idea of educating youngsters to really enjoy and celebrate healthy eating, which is a great shame.”
Dr Poole suggests that people who feel unable to overhaul their diet completely can simply introduce a few Mediterranean-inspired tweaks instead. “Celebrate and enjoy basic ingredients,” he says. “Combine vegetables with fish and white meat, drizzle food with olive oil and have plenty of fruit.”
He thinks prevention of illness is always better than the cure.
“It should be about how we can remain healthy in the first place,” he says. “But, of course, you can’t put the Mediterranean diet in a pill.”
British Dietetic Association spokesperson Sioned Quirke is another supporter of the Med diet, and explains that it includes most of the principles of healthy eating that dieticians promote.
“It’s definitely worth encouraging people to make at least one simple change towards Mediterranean eating,” says Quirke, who has also set up a website (www.quirkynutrition.co.uk) to provide clear and safe advice on healthy eating.
“The fruit and veg part is massive – people know they should have five servings of fruit and veg a day, but I don’t think they realise the extent to which it can benefit us.
“It’s not just the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals – we know that they help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease, too.”
Quirke advises people to “eat the rainbow” – in other words, to eat as many different-coloured fruit and vegetables as possible, as each colour contains different vitamin and mineral contents.
She says that while olive oil is an important part of Mediterranean eating, it’s still better not to fry food in it, but use it in marinades, sauces or salad dressings instead.
Though there’s no need to cut out meat completely, some of it could be replaced with beans or lentils, she suggests, as they’re a good source of protein but don’t contain saturated fat – plus, as a bonus, they’re much cheaper than meat.
“Nobody’s perfect, but if you make at least one practical Mediterranean-type change to your diet, it will benefit your health,” she promises.
Additional reporting by Khulekani Madlela and Shreeja Ravindranathan