The Mediterranean diet, as enjoyed in - Spain, the South of France, Italy and Greece - is much talked about as being one of the healthiest diets (or eating patterns) to follow. It is very well studied and has proven benefits against cardiovascular disease, cancer, it can improve metabolic and brain health. The Mediterranean lifestyle with its images of blue sea, small hilltop towns and cypress groves is also much loved and this has helped to popularise the diet and the culture.
The traditional Mediterranean diet, or eating pattern, provides a host of health benefits providing that the traditional eating pattern is followed. It is important to note that in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea the traditional form of this eating pattern is rapidly being lost as processed and packaged foods become increasingly popular. Fortunately, the eating pattern - essentially a 'flexitarian' eating pattern - is well documented by the scientific and culinary communities.
The diet includes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and (mainly) whole grains. It includes the use of olive oil and a low intake of saturated fats. Fish is included; dairy products, meat, and poultry are limited. Limited amounts of wine at mealtimes is included. The diet is nutrient dense. The high proportion of plants and herbs provide antioxidant polyphenols and other phytochemicals (plant based chemical compounds) that promote health.
The Mediterranean diet is varied and, especially for Western palates, enjoyable to eat and to implement. At its heart is it simple, rural cuisine and not a diet of caloric excess. This is an important issue as many people, when practising the diet, still consume too many calories. As the diet is whole food based it has similarities to traditional diets in other locations around the world, the principles of eating this way are universal even if the ingredients may differ.
It is important to remember that the healthy version of this eating pattern is based on simple, whole foods with limited meats and fish. Eating a large Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak) and drinking a bottle of wine may be reminiscent of the Italian hills, but it is not healthy. These dishes are traditionally celebratory in nature, not part of the weekly nor even the monthly diet.
In the traditional form of the diet the use of olive oil is moderate. If you want to lose weight you have to limit the amount of olive oil that you consume. The diet is more than the stereotyped image of pasta dishes, it is rich in beans, whole grains in salads, simple soups and stews.
Less talked about is the Mediterranean diet of the Eastern Mediterranean or North Africa. For the past few thousand years all shores of the sea have had shared cultures and histories. These cuisines, often rich in health promoting and flavourful spices, are well worth exploring for their different taste profiles and culinary inspiration.
How can you enjoy a Mediterranean diet and culinary lifestyle without moving to Southern Europe?
Find inspiration in foodie documentaries and travel shows. Buy a nice cookbook or research recipes on YouTube.
Use recipes that follow the traditional eating pattern and its ingredients, as we have described above.
Buy your produce from a local market, get to know your stallholders by name. Social health counts towards longevity.
If possible, buy seasonal or local fresh produce.
For increased nutritional health, swap out white pasta with wholemeal pasta.
Go easy on the olive oil. There are health benefits to using olive oil over others however, like any processed oil, it is highly calorific.
Enjoy eating as a family or group of friends. No phones on the table.
An Alternative: "Kampung Cuisine"
If you don't enjoy these tastes, cannot access the produce, or want to try something different, consider the traditional eating pattern of where you grew up. The flavours and textures of whole foods, herbs and spices that you might be more familiar with and can be found in the local markets. What is your local or regional traditional eating pattern? In Asia we are fortunate to have many styles of cuisine that can be enjoyed. Be sure to keep an eye on nutritional health with a focus on whole, unprocessed foods.
Enjoying nutritionally dense diet and maintaining a healthy weight are cornerstones of physical health. To maximise long-term health outcomes daily exercise and sleep are also vital. This is part of the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle. These daily activities and rest also lead to better mental health outcomes. Finally, let's not neglect our social health. Having a good circle of close friends and neighbours that can support you, a community, is important.
If you have any concerns about your health or are under treatment, please talk to your doctor or medical practitioner most familiar with your medical history before implementing any changes in diet, exercise or lifestyle.
Felicia and Alastair
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Danielle Belardo, Erin D. Michos, Ron Blankstein, Roger S. Blumenthal, Keith C. Ferdinand, Kevin Hall, Kevin Klatt, Pradeep Natajaran, Robert J. Ostfeld, Koushik Reddy, Renee Rodriguez, Urshila Sriram, Deirdre K. Tobias, Martha Gulati, Practical, Evidence-Based Approaches to Nutritional Modifications to Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease: An American Society For Preventive Cardiology Clinical Practice Statement, American Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Volume 10, 2022,100323, ISSN 2666-6677