The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet

There is always a new weight-loss diet; the talk shows and the bookshops are always full of the latest great dietary secrets. The diets come and then they go. The success or failure of them is related more to the packaging than to the content. The ones with the snappy names and attractive spokesmen do well; sound nutritional thinking does not seem to be an advantage.

The Scarsdale, Hollywood, Atkins, Zone, South Beach and the Beverly Hills diets all had their moments but all have been found to be disappointing to many of their participants. One dietary approach that a great many people have found to be effective is the so-called Mediterranean diet. Its advantages have been well researched and documented. This diet is different from most of the others in that it is more of a philosophy, an attitude, a general set of principles than are the others. Attention was first directed at this approach by a professor from Minnesota who noticed that the people from the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea: Italy, Greece, Spain, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the North African countries were full of slim healthy looking people.

Their incidence of heart disease and other related diseases was less than in other parts of the world. The diet in these countries was not designed by some thoughtful nutritionist but was comprised of those foods that were available locally and which could be obtained at a low cost. The land around the Med lacks the lush flat meadows that are suitable for grazing cows; sheep and goats are preferred. The people eat the meat and also make cheese from the milk of these animals, cheeses that are not as fatty as those made from cow milk.

For geographic and cultural reasons there are differences from one country to another, more pasta in Italy, more couscous in the North African countries. It is the diets of the countries on the northern shore of the Med that have been most widely studied. The ‘Mediterranean diet’ is a series of recommendations that follows these dietary habits. It is not a series of menus that have to be followed; it also differs from other diets in that it emphasizes what you should eat rather than telling you what is forbidden.

In other diets there are the great NO-NOs: Dr Atkins tells us that carbohydrates are our enemy, the anti-fat diets tell us that butter is poison: you need a degree in nutrition or biochemistry to order from a menu. Where are the carbohydrates? Where are the fats? Are they mono or poly saturated? It’s all too much work! One of the problems is that all of these fad diets have a huge drop-out rate; they may be easy to follow for short periods of time, perhaps for several months while you shed unwanted weight, but after this the participants usually slip back into old habits and the weight returns.

The Mediterranean approach is one with so much flexibility and is so forgiving, that you consider that you have chosen to change the way that you eat rather than being ‘on-a diet’ It is a positive change rather than a negative one. Here are the main characteristics of the Mediterranean diet An abundance of vegetables, fruit, cereals, breads, potatoes and beans. Olive oil as the principle oil for cooking and for dressings. Fish several times a week; very little red meat. Moderate amount of dairy products, mainly cheese. Eggs, but not more than three a week. Red wine in moderate amounts An active life style.

A study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 followed 22,000 people living in Greece and investigated their eating habits. During the four years of the study, researchers found that the more people followed these dietary principles the less likely they were to die from cancer or heart disease. On analysis, the diet is compatible with the recommendations of most cardiac authorities’ recommendations. There is more fat consumption than they usually recommend due to the liberal use of olive oil, but this is a mono-saturated fat which is generally heart-friendly.

Does this mean that the people from these countries all eat this type of diet? Unfortunately that is not always the case; the supermarkets of Barcelona, Marseilles, Palermo and Athens look like these in any other country and the consumption of beef and other meats is increasing. It is really quite easy to follow this diet in Thailand; vegetables, fruits, cheese and red wine are obtainable quite easily and there is a wide selection of olive oils at the best supermarkets.

Even when eating out you can find suitable food on almost all menus. Here, even eating out it is very easy to eat in this manner. Thai food has as its main components two of the categories of food recommended in this way of eating, seafood and vegetables. Seafood is plentiful, fresh fruit and vegetables are a part of almost every meal.

I have also been impressed with how the people of tropical countries are relaxed and at ease with their lives; meal times are unrushed social events, full of conversation and laughter not a pit stop to fill up with fuel. Slow down and taste the rosé. Dr Michael Moreton