The temperate isles of the Mediterranean are home to sun, sea and delicious dishes thought to hold the key to good health. But what is it that makes a Mediterranean diet quite so good for us? Victoria Taylor, Senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, gives her view on the healthy benefits of the sunshine cuisine…
There has been a lot of talk recently about whether fat or sugar is the worst offender when it comes to our diets. But by focusing on individual dietary components it’s easy to miss the bigger picture. While it’s important to understand how different foods and nutrients affect our health, a whole diet approach offers a more helpful way of looking at our eating habits and choices.
What is a Mediterranean diet?
A typical Mediterranean diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, cereals and cereal products, for example wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice. It also contains moderate amounts of fish, white meat and some dairy produce.
It’s the combination of all these elements that seems to bring health benefits, but one of the key aspects is the inclusion of healthy fats. Olive oil, which is a monounsaturated fat, is most commonly associated with the Mediterranean diet but polyunsaturated fats are also present in nuts, seeds and oily fish.
What are the health benefits?
Research into the traditional Mediterranean diet has shown it may reduce our risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol, which are all risk factors for heart disease. Researchers have also found that people who closely follow a Mediterranean diet may live a longer life and be less likely to put on weight.
How does it work?
As research into the benefits of this type of diet is on going, there may eventually be certain foods that are found to have greater significance for health. For now however, it seems it is the overall diet approach and the combination of foods, rather than individual ‘superfoods’, that make this such a healthy way to eat.
This makes sense, as it’s true to say that if you are eating an unhealthy diet, full of processed foods, adding one element, such as olive oil, is unlikely to have noticeable health benefits if that’s the only change you make. However, if you adjust your whole diet so you eat a little less meat and more fish, opt for healthy fats and eat more fruit and vegetables, then it could make a significant difference.