Tuck in like a Mediterranean and live longer
While diet in some sunnier shores may be changing, the original regional foodstuffs are a recipe for better health
Mixed Beans, beetroot and chilli marinated chicken escalapes. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Tomato and Lentil soup. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Despite the cultural differences between Moroccans, French, Greek and others living around the Mediterranean basin, they shared a traditional diet with many common characteristics some 70 years ago. There was an abundance of vegetables; fruits; spices; seafood; breads; cereal foods usually made from wheat, nuts, and olive oil; and wine with meals.
“He is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines. He walks to work daily and labours in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land . . . His midday, main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from grazing in thyme-filled pastures. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savoury cuisine . . . His is the lowest heart-attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the western world.”
The description above of the “low-coronary-risk male” living on the isle of Crete, in the aftermath of the second World War appeared in the Seven Countries Study, which focused the world’s attention on the traditional Mediterranean diet.
To determine the protective component of the diet, isolated nutrients have been studied in large, well-designed, randomised clinical trials, typically with null effects. It appears this focus on nutrients rather than foods is counterproductive.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is considered somewhat of a paradox. Although fat consumption was high, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer was lower than other European countries. Rather than limiting total fat intake, the diet focused on healthier fats.
On the menu were monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts and avocados and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish. If you were to follow this diet today, limiting your intake of processed and packaged foods ensures a better balance of fats and a lower intake of the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
In a meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal, which included more than 1.5 million participants, the researchers found greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet resulted in significant improvements to health, including a 9 per cent drop in overall mortality, a 9 per cent drop in mortality from cardiovascular disease, 6 per cent reduction in incidence of or mortality from neoplasm, and a 13 per cent fall in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, the food and meal patterns of these Mediterranean countries have changed over the years. In Crete, for example, people consume less fruit and olive oil. They also eat more meat today, including processed meats. Low rates of heart disease are no longer prevalent.
A weekly Mediterranean-style shopping list has few processed foods, but is big on colour and flavour. It might include:
Shellfish: clams, crab, lobster, mussels, scallops and shrimp.
Fish: anchovies, halibut, salmon, sardines, bream, sole, tilapia, trout, tuna and swordfish.
Fruit: citrus, berries, cherries, dates, figs, grapes, melons, apples, peaches, pears and pomegranates.
Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, avocados, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, courgette, carrots, celery, corn, aubergines, fennel, green beans, green leafy vegetables, olives, onions, potatoes, radishes, squash and tomatoes.