The region around the Mediterranean basin is sunny, fertile and grows delicious food. The style of cooking and eating are thought to hold the key to good health. But what is it that makes the Mediterranean diet so good for us?
A Mediterranean diet incorporates the traditional healthy living habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Greece, Italy and Spain. It is a diet based on a rural life where people in these countries eat what they grow. Meals are based on vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereal grains, olive oil and fish with smaller amounts of meat and foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. It also contains moderate amounts of alcohol; usually red wine drunk with meals.
In the mid 1970’s Ancel and Margaret Keys, an American husband-and-wife team, first reported on the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits. Since then, the diet has become well known for its effect on cardiovascular health. Research since the 1970’s has shown other benefits of eating a healthy Mediterranean diet such as improvements in brain health, reduced risk of diabetes and cancer. This way of eating is one of the most researched diets in the world.
There are many lifestyle factors associated with the traditional Mediterranean diet such as eating with friends and family and leading an active lifestyle in a warm climate. This active lifestyle also promotes good health.
One key aspect of the diet is the inclusion of healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats. Nuts seeds and oily fish contain polyunsaturated fats. These fats have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels, which in turn reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another advantage of the diet is it is plant based which means it is high in dietary fibre and contains a range of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components. These help to prevent damage to cells in the body and reduce the risk of some cancers.
New research from Kings College, London supports the idea that a small glass of red wine a day might be beneficial to your health – specifically to your gut bacteria. Red wine contains polyphenols that provide a food source for beneficial bacteria in the gut to thrive. These gut bacteria then have a positive effect on both mental and physical health.
Diet can influence mental health by causing damage to the brain. Blood vessels can be damaged by diets too high in saturated fats and salt leading to poor blood flow. Diet can also affect the formation of neurones - nerve cells in the brain - particularly in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with mood regulation. A diet rich in anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant components, commonly found in fruit, vegetables, nuts and a little wine, can directly affect the brain by protecting it from oxidative stress and inflammation. This way of eating may help to prevent depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
A Mediterranean style eating pattern may also help to prevent type 2 diabetes. Again, it is thought that polyphenols found in the Mediterranean diet have a beneficial effect on the pancreas by reducing the effect of inflammation on pancreatic cells that causes insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
The best way of moving your diet towards a more Mediterranean way of eating is to:
Signing up to an inspiring cookery course can also help hone your cookery skills and inspire you to cook in a more Mediterranean way.