As the days darken and we head into the depths of winter, there is a diet which can bring a bit of nutritional sunshine to your gut – the Mediterranean Diet?
Charlotte Harrison, Nutritionist, Spoon Guru (www.Spoon.Guru), AI food technology start-up that developed a unique food search & discovery engine to cater for individuals with specific dietary food requirements or health objectives, explains why the Mediterranean Diet is one we should all be incorporating into our weekly winter meal plans.
Characterising the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is based on foods naturally found in countries like Italy, Greece and Spain which lie around the Mediterranean Sea. Obviously each of these countries have fairly different flavours but there are common features which can be combined to bring some sunshine into your nutrition all year round.
From sunny Greek dishes like grilled seafood and Greek salad, to Italian pesto, pasta and grains such as polenta, and popular rice dishes like risotto and arancini, Spanish tapas like patatas bravas, olives, jamón, gambas al ajillo, and gazpacho, to robust classic French dishes such as Bouillabaisse, coq au vin and salade niçoise, all represent great Mediterranean flavours and all contain substantial fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil.
How do you make your diet more Mediterranean?
· Fats – instead of using saturated fats like butter or coconut oil, use a Mediterranean oil such as olive oil. This simple change is important, as saturated fats increase the LDL’s (bad cholesterol) in the blood which, if raised for a long time, can clog arteries which can lead to heart disease.
· Eating lots of fruits and vegetables – you can’t go wrong with eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. Not only does a diet varied in fruits and vegetables supply you with pretty much all the nutrients you need, but also contains portions of fibre which keeps your bowels healthy and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
· Less meat – A lot of Mediterranean meals tend to focus on vegetables and legumes instead of protein sources like red meat. An ideal meal is one with many different vegetables, not only does this make a colourful plate but also a highly nutritious meal.
· More fish – the ‘standard’ Mediterranean diet contains a fair amount of fish. Obviously countries by the sea tend to eat more fish due to its availability and cheap price. There are two main types of fish, oily and white. Oily fish includes sardines, salmon, trout and mackerel, with white fish being cod, haddock, plaice and red mullet, to name a few. Each type of fish contains different health benefits:
o Oily fish contains a high amount of omega 3’s and vitamin D. Some oily fish (e.g. whitebait) you can eat the bones, this also contains sources of calcium and phosphorus, which keeps our bones strong.
o White fish is lower in fat making them a healthier alternative to some red or processed meat choices. Some species of white fish can also be a good source of omega 3 such as sea bream or halibut.
· Starchy foods – Mediterranean diets tend to contain a lot of starchy foods such as potatoes, pasta and bread. A lot of classic starchy, high carbohydrate foods tend to get a bad reputation, however swapping a fried chip for a boiled, unpeeled new potato can make up a really healthy meal. Also try swapping your regular white bread and pastas for whole grain or seeded varieties.
Vegetarians and the Mediterranean Diet
Due to this region’s focus on fresh produce and pulses, the Mediterranean diet can be vegetarian. In fact, for the seven weeks leading up to Easter, the food traditionally eaten by the Greek Orthodox community is nearly all vegan.
Because the countries border the Mediterranean Sea, there can be quite a lot of fish and shellfish in the diet however if you don’t eat fish then you can substitute the fish for some other options.
Fish contains a high amount of omega’s and vitamin D. Plant-based foods which contain these important nutrients include hemp, flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and kidney beans, all of which can be substituted in your vegetarian Mediterranean diet. Shellfish are low in fat and a great source of selenium, zinc, iodine and copper. Good plant-based alternatives in the diet would be:
· Selenium: whole grains and milk, as well as Brazil nuts.
· Zinc: beans, nuts and whole grains.
· Iodine: good sources include eggs, milk, and kelp seaweed. Seaweed contains quite a lot of iodine so you don’t need to eat too much in order to get the iodine.
· Copper: shiitake mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables.
The Pros of the Mediterranean Diet
· The Mediterranean diet puts emphasis on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, all of which are extremely good for you. Most fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins A, C, folate, fibre and potassium.
· High fruit and vegetables means that your gut gets looked after! Pretty much all contain a high amount of fibre which your gut loves.
· You’ll reach 1 of your 5 a day in no time. This is a government guideline which suggests you should be having 5 different portions of fruit and vegetables in a day. With emphasis on plants in the Mediterranean diet, there’ll be no issues with reaching your daily target and you may even eat more plants!
· Limits the consumption of processed and high sugar/ salt foods. In time, a reduction of these foods can really benefit your heart health, blood health and gut.
· Saturated fat consumption is low – there is more of an emphasis on unsaturated fatty acids, which comes from plant based oils, such as olive. Having a diet low in saturated fat can help the body lower the levels of LDL’s (bad cholesterol) and increase the HDL’s (good cholesterol).
· It’s tasty! There are so many meals to choose from so I’m sure you’ll find at least one which you’ll love.
The Cons of the Mediterranean Diet
· As there are no specific guidelines to follow, it can be tricky to make those choices and swaps without knowing everything about the diet. For some people it can be difficult to know what’s best.
· It can be time consuming – a lot of meals can take time to make. For example paella, it can take some time to let all the flavours come in and rice to cook, but the wait will be worth it.
· Managing allergies around the diet can also be tricky. For example, if you are vegetarian and have a nut allergy, it may take more planning to get certain nutrients like zinc or selenium.
Overall the Mediterranean diet is a tasty, non-restrictive diet which the whole family can enjoy. It’s not only a great way to try new foods and really get those nutrients up, it’s also very beneficial for heart health, gut health and blood health.