How eating like you’re on holiday can lengthen your life!
The Mediterranean diet is making waves as the world’s healthiest eating plan. Stephanie Osfield shows you how to launch into the Med for lifelong rewards.
Want to know what the world’s healthiest diet tastes like? Well, so do scientists who, having had the Mediterranean diet under the microscope for decades, are now watching it become a global dietary sensation.
Let’s be clear from the start: The word diet is a misnomer in this case. Rather than restrict kilojoules, the Mediterranean diet serves up hearty meals that thrill the taste buds and fill the stomach. As a combination of the traditional eating habits of villagers in Greece, Spain and Italy, among other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, this deliciously nutritious cuisine packs a powerful health punch.
A sea of health benefits
Research into the Mediterranean diet has produced some exciting results. The landmark PREDIMED study, which has been tracking the eating habits of nearly 7500 people in Spain since 2003, is proving especially significant.
After spending four years on the Med diet, study subjects not only cut their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by a massive 52 per cent, but also reduced their susceptibility to stroke and heart disease by an impressive 30 per cent. Plus, subjects who’d been teetering on the brink of diabetes showed fewer signs of metabolic syndrome, experiencing shrinking waistlines in particular, without having to count kilojoules or do any more exercise.
Enjoying a Mediterranean diet may also lengthen your lifespan. When 4676 healthy middle-aged women ate this way for a major 2014 US study, those who stuck the most closely to the diet had longer telomeres, tiny structures that cap our chromosome ends to protect their genetic codes.
As markers of ageing, telomeres shorten gradually over time, so the women’s healthy telomere length suggested that their lives would be long, too.
The key foods
So what does this healthy way of eating actually involve? There are about as many kinds of Med diets as there are Mediterranean countries, but “the traditional diet emphasises plant foods, such as vegies, fruits, nuts and legumes [beans, lentils and chickpeas]”, explains Mary Barry, CEO of the National Heart Foundation. This means making olive oil the main source of fat in your diet, which should also include wholegrain breads and cereals, along with natural yoghurt and cheese (in moderation), some fish and only small portions of meat.
The Med diet is heart healthy because it’s high in unsaturated fats from olive oil and oily fish, and low in fatty meats. As a result, this cuisine offers lifelong health rewards. Research links long-term adherence to this easy plan with a reduced mortality risk at any age, “mostly because of the reduction in the risk of developing heart disease or cancer”, explains Barry. “Following this diet also means you’ll be less likely to develop the cardiovascular-disease risk factors of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol and obesity.”
The Mediterranean diet has yet another drawcard: its ability to satisfy hunger. “In the PREDIMED study, people didn’t count kilojoules — they ate until they were full, yet they didn’t gain weight,” says Catherine Itsiopoulos, PhD, Head of Department and Associate Professor in Dietetics and Human Nutrition at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Itsiopoulos is also the author of The Mediterranean Diet (Macmillan). “If people feel satisfied by their meals, they snack less and are far more likely to keep following a healthy eating plan, because they don’t feel deprived.”
How to move to the Med
A diet that delivers good health and long life while satisfying hunger sounds like a win-win approach to wellbeing, but you don’t need to take it to extremes. Embracing the diet’s principles in a sensible way is important for a couple of key reasons.
“Yes, people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet have a longer-than-average lifespan,” confirms Alan Barclay, PhD, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Chief Scientific Officer at the Glycemic Index Foundation. “But we mustn’t forget that other eating patterns are also associated with longevity. This includes Japan’s Okinawa diet, even though this way of eating is high in carbohydrates and low in fat.”
In other words, there’s more than one way to eat well. As Barclay explains, following the Med diet isn’t the only way to live a long and healthy life. “Personal food preferences are important, because they affect our quality of life.” Still, research shows that we’d all benefit from embracing the Med diet’s principles.
We also need to heed this major sticking point: Some of the meals we think of as Mediterranean, such as pizza, pasta and lasagne, can be packed with red meat and drowning in cheesy or creamy sauces — foods that send our health spiralling in the wrong direction. Traditional Mediterranean families did not eat these sorts of rich foods every day, so save such meals for special occasions.
To find your sea legs and take this way of eating on board, embrace the following Med-diet moves.
Eat less red meat
“In countries such as Spain and Greece, red meat was both expensive and not always readily available. People ate meat only once or twice a week, or once a fortnight,” says Karen Murphy, PhD, a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia’s Division of Health Sciences. Murphy is currently exploring the effects of an Australianised Mediterranean diet on heart health and cognitive function.
“Plants provided the protein,” explains Murphy. “Legumes provide fibre and minerals, and having a high fibre intake helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Eating less red meat also cuts kilojoules and assists weight maintenance.”
Tip: Swap red meat and chicken for more meals with seafood and legumes, preferably once or twice a week.
Build meals around vegetables
“The traditional Mediterranean diet was largely vegetarian,” says Itsiopoulos. “In fact, most people ate half a kilo of vegetables a day, often in casseroles, as one serve gave them many different veg, such as carrots, artichokes and zucchini.”
Mediterraneans also picked and ate lots of wild leafy greens, adds Itsiopoulos. “Spinach and silverbeet, among other greens, such as endive and chicory, are high in the antioxidants lutein and beta-carotene.”
Traditional Med menus, such as those of Greece, also featured plenty of vegetables cooked in olive oil, and sometimes with tomato. “This style of cooking is very healthy,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian Antigone Kouris, PhD, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Dietetics at La Trobe University in Melbourne. As Kouris explains, cooking with olive oil doesn’t create the unhealthy chemical compounds that result from dry cooking methods, such as barbecuing.
“The vegetables in the Mediterranean diet were often quite soft, but this doesn’t mean they were less nutritious,” adds Kouris. “Slow cooking helps break down vegetable cell walls, making their antioxidant vitamins and minerals easier for the body to absorb. Tomatoes, for example, release more of the antioxidant lycopene the longer they’re slow cooked.”
Meanwhile, the Med diet’s onion and garlic not only boost flavour, but also boast health benefits. “These sorts of foods have antibacterial properties and improve digestive health,” says Kouris. “Studies also show that they promote heart health and may help stabilise blood sugars and cholesterol levels.”
Tip: Slow-cook your vegies and eat five serves of them every day to reduce your risk of early death from any cause.
Splash more olive oil into meals
Surprisingly, Mediterraneans eat more fat, not less. But as Murphy clarifies, “this comes from healthy monounsaturated foods, such as olive oil. Sources such as these contain phytosterols that benefit ‘good’ HDL cholesterol”. Adding at least four tablespoons of olive oil to meals every day provides health benefits, according to the PREDIMED study guidelines.
“Olive oil has phytochemicals and other plant compounds that have potent anti-inflammatory properties, and these help fight disease,” adds Itsiopoulos. “This oil also makes our blood vessels more flexible, lowering blood pressure and improving heart health. And like other healthy fats, olive oil helps you feel full for longer.”
“Olive oil makes vegetables such as [sometimes bitter] greens more palatable, just as garlic and tomato do,” says Kouris. “And, more important for your health, olive oil also improves the body’s absorption of the fat-soluble nutrients in these plant foods.”
Tip: Use extra-virgin olive oil to sauté onion and garlic, to coat vegetables and baking dishes, and as a garnish.
Curb your cheese consumption
Mediterraneans tossed only a few cubes of feta into salads and scattered only a little parmesan into soups. “They didn’t grate half a block of cheese over their meal,” says Murphy. Butter, cream and milk didn’t feature much either, partly because cows and goats produced milk for only part of the year.
Despite these modest serves of dairy foods, studies show that Mediterraneans enjoyed strong bones, says Murphy. In fact, they managed to consume a healthy 800mg of calcium a day. “This calcium came from various foods, including broccoli, almonds, oily fish (such as sardines and salmon with intact bones) as well as lamb and chicken bones, which broke down during slow cooking, thus leaving their calcium in the stew.”
Meanwhile, these dairy-food choices were also boosting the health of everyone’s gut bacteria. “People in Mediterranean countries often made their own yoghurt and feta,” says Itsiopoulos. “These foods are full of live cultures that have probiotic properties, and probiotics increase the gut’s levels of beneficial bugs, the ‘good’ bacteria.
“Other Med foods that provide probiotics include olives, whose skins develop a bacterial bloom. Research now links this bacteria to everything from weight loss to allergy protection.”
Tip: Enhance meals with only 30 to 40g of hard cheese, such as cheddar, or with 120g of soft cheese, like cottage cheese or ricotta.
Serve rice and pasta as sides
Although some Mediterraneans frequently ate pasta (especially Italians!), others, such as Greeks, ate pasta and rice only once or twice a week. “The serves were small, too — they didn’t fill the bowl or plate,” points out Itsiopoulos.
Tip: Make vegies and salad the stars of every meal, and treat pasta and rice as though they’re the support acts.
Break the best bread
Bread was a staple food across the Mediterranean, “but it wasn’t white, fluffy and low in fibre,” says Kouris. Med bread was a wholemeal blend of grains such as wheat, barley and corn. “It was sourdough, too, so it contained healthy bacteria and didn’t cause a rapid surge in blood-sugar levels.”
When buying sourdough, “check the label to ensure that the sour taste is due to a starter culture”, advises Barclay. “If the flavour comes from vinegar, the bread probably has a higher glycaemic index [GI]”, which means you’ll miss out on some of the bread’s health benefits.
In regions such as Crete, people ate 300-400g of bread a day (which is the equivalent of 10 slices), often with a drizzle of olive oil, or a little onion or feta. “This is a big serve of bread, but people were very physically active, ploughing fields and walking a lot,” says Kouris. “We’re far less active, so Aussies who eat that much bread every day are likely to gain weight.”
Tip: Choose dense, heavy breads with visible grains or authentic sourdough.
Nail your nut serves
Hearty and tasty, Mediterranean meals are very filling, so snacking is somewhat uncommon in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy.
Nibble on small handfuls of raw nuts — roughly 30g about three times a week is optimal, according to PREDIMED study guidelines — along with other healthy unprocessed snacks. These include fresh fruit, lightly roasted pepitas, dry-roasted chickpeas and wholegrain bread with a little olive oil or tahini.
Tip: Swap processed foods — and their bulky loads of salt, sugar, fat and kilojoules — for healthy seasonal foods.
Scrutinise your sips
On traditional menus, health-boosting herbal teas took the place of black varieties. “Sage tea in particular is still popular in Mediterranean countries,” says Kouris, “and studies now confirm that it’s very good for brain health and memory.”
Greek coffee also has health benefits. “It’s a great source of magnesium, because the beans are boiled whole, leaving all their goodness in the water.” Mediterraneans also enjoyed a tipple or two, but not alone. “People drank with family or neighbours at mealtimes and stopped after just one or two glasses,” says Kouris. This is a good strategy, especially if you make sure your wine glass is small. (Otherwise you could inadvertently down the alcohol of four standard drinks, even though you’ve had only two glasses of wine.)
Tip: Swap a few of your usual teas for some tasty herbal blends.
More healthy Med moves: Strolls, siestas and socialising
Experts believe that the Mediterranean way of life offers other important health benefits.
Mediterranean villagers tended to walk or cycle everywhere. Even daily chores, such as washing clothes by hand and kneading dough, helped them burn more kilojoules.
“Shops and businesses would often close in the afternoons to accommodate this refreshing catnap, which could last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour,” says Itsiopoulos. US studies suggest that taking regular midday naps (about three times a week for at least 30 minutes) can reduce the risk of death from heart disease, possibly because this helps lower stress levels. Other US research shows that an hour’s nap significantly boosts brainpower, particularly memory.
Strong community ties
“Families lived near each other, and extended family and neighbours often socialised together,” explains Itsiopoulos. “So if you felt lonely or needed help, you always had someone to rely on.” Studies suggest that having strong social networks helps protect brain function as we age.
Food for happy thoughts
A Med diet may benefit your mind as much as your body. Late last year, a small study from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology revealed that people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet for just 10 days became more alert and content.
In fact, typical Med foods, such as minestrone, lentil fritters and baba ganoush, can even help us battle the blues. “Our research shows that people who stick closely to a Mediterranean diet enjoy better moods and fewer bouts of depression,” says Natalie Parletta, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at The University of South Australia’s School of Population Studies. “Studies also show that this diet can protect us against dementia.”
Want to jump into the Med right now? Start with these easy and delicious meals!