Ah the Mediterranean diet – something we all know of as the ultimate healthy feast. But what does the Mediterranean diet actually consist of and why is it touted to be so good?
First off, the Mediterranean diet is not a ‘diet’ in the conventional way we think about diets in the 21st Century. The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle, a way of living.
This lifestyle is based on the traditional diets from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Predominately in the south i.e. Italy, Southern France, Greece, Crete and Spain.
These countries have a number of similarities as well as plenty of differences in their approach to food and eating practices. However, they also share a similar climate with dry, hot summers and close proximity to the sea. This means easy access to locally grown, fresh vegetables (especially tomatoes) and fruits and access to a wide variety of fresh fish.
The EUFIC (European Food Information Council) suggests that some common characteristics shared within the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle are as follows:
- A high consumption of fruits, vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, bread and other cereals
- Olive oil used for cooking and dressings
- Moderate amounts of fish but little meat
- Low to moderate amounts of full fat cheese and yogurt
- Moderate consumption of wine, usually with meals
- Reliance on local, seasonal, fresh produce
- An active lifestyle
These components are why this way of eating is supposed to be so beneficial. Hoverer, let’s take a closer look at the ‘typical’ diets of some of the Mediterranean countries.
The Greek diet is the main basis of the Mediterranean diet and consists of plenty of olive oil, fresh vegetables, beans and pulses as well as moderate amounts of wine, fish and dairy foods and low intakes of meat.
The Greek diet is largely a vegetarian one and, often, main meals are based around vegetables with meat, fish or cheese as a smaller side offering.
Olive oil is used aplenty – to cook, sprinkle and pour onto dishes and salads at leisure. Common vegetables included at mealtimes are green beans, peas, eggplants, leeks, artichokes, cauliflowers and okra. With fresh fruits often finishing off meals for dessert.
An important aspect of Greek (and Mediterranean) cuisine is the emphasis given towards family and shared meals – meals are a family occasion and time is dedicated throughout the day to eating. Additionally there is a focus on fresh foods and cooking from scratch. Very little in the way of processed foods and meats are consumed which bares striking differences to the way we eat in the UK today.
Italy has some similarities to Greece. Mainly that cooking and eating fresh foods is desirable and seen as an important part of life. Lots of wholegrain carbohydrates are consumed and generally, alongside fresh vegetables, these form the basis of Italian dining. However, it’s clear that typically Italian portion sizes are smaller than those that we consume in the UK. In fact, Italian meals usually consist of small, multiple courses and are generally followed by a dessert of fresh fruit.
As with Greece, eating is more than just fuelling. It’s seen as an important social occasion when family and friends get together to enjoy their freshly prepared meals and dishes.
Home of the French Paradox. The French way of eating has baffled researchers for years. This diet consists of more meat and animal products than Greece and Italy’s plant based eating styles. But one of the main features, again, which compares to the Mediterranean lifestyle, is the high importance that food and eating has in the lives of the French. Food is a social occasion and eating is to be savored and enjoyed. Comparatively in the UK, research shows that the majority of us eat for necessity rather than enjoyment.
In France meals are eaten and prepared at home, from scratch and, as with the other Mediterranean countries, the motto seems to be quality, not quantity. In a study looking at French vs English eating habits it was also found that 6% of French snack, in comparison to over 50% of Brits in 2006. Additionally the French value pleasure and the social aspect of eating, whereas convenience is key in UK.
So why does it work?
It seems, as much as anything, to be the overall attitude and importance placed on food and dining in these Mediterranean countries that may be contributing to the Mediterranean Diet’s halo of health benefits. That, as well as the significance and emphasis placed on using fresh, un-processed ingredients, cooking from scratch, including mounds of vegetables at mealtimes and, of course, cooking with lashings of olive oil!
That advice sound familiar to anyone?