We all know it’s the wonder diet that could help us live longer, but do you really know what’s in it?
Diets and faddy ways of eating come into fashion and go again, but one has stood the test of time: the Mediterranean diet. While some eating plans have produced mixed reviews when studied by science, the Mediterranean diet has consistently come top for boosting health and longevity.
One huge review, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, analysed the results of 50 studies involving more than 500,000 people. Researchers at the universities of Athens and Ioannina in Greece and Naples, Italy, noted those eating the diet had lower blood pressure, blood glucose and also had higher levels of ‘good’ cholesterol. They also found a reduction in the risk factors that increase the chances of heart disease. This has given the Mediterranean diet its heart-healthy title, but more recently the benefits have been extended to the brain.
Researchers at the Weill Cornell Medicine centre in New York have found that it may protect against Alzheimer’s disease. When compared with eating the typically western way, which is full of processed food and sugar, researchers said the Mediterranean diet could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as three and a half years, with the antiinflammatory aspect of the diet helping to preserve the brain’s blood vessels. One researcher even commented that the brains of people eating western diets were “literally shrinking, even in middle age.”
Scary stuff – so what exactly does eating a Mediterranean diet involve? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as copying what your local Italian restaurant serves up – mountains of pasta and juicy steaks. Nor is it glugging copious amounts of red wine, more’s the pity! “The Mediterranean diet is actually quite complex,” says Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist with Nature’s Best (naturesbest.co.uk). “The reason it is so beneficial is because it involves eating a lot of fresh oily fish alongside salad or vegetables. It’s also loaded with healthy good fats such as olive oil and avocado.
“Alternatively, people can interpret it as just eating pasta all day – but this is obviously not the right way!
“The diet is full of healthy omega 3 essential fats. Omega 3s contain compounds called EPA and DHA. We know these are really beneficial for a variety of health conditions but especially for cardiovascular health, brain function and vision. It also has a high amount of vegetables. As we know, vegetables are packed full of nutrients which are beneficial for our health. “To follow the Mediterranean diet properly, ensure you have protein with every meal, such as meat or fish, along with some vegetables.
“The small amount of wine included in a typical Mediterranean diet is thought to be beneficial because it is mainly red wine. This contains something called resveratrol, which comes from grapes and is a powerful antioxidant, helping to stop free radical damage in the body.
“In a nutshell, you need to be eating platefuls of green, leafy vegetables, plus a rainbow colourful mix of other vegetables, olive oil, small amounts of good-quality, grass-fed, free-range meat, oily fish, wholegrains and pulses. Think unprocessed food which doesn’t come from a packet,” says Shona.
Other evidence suggests that the social aspect of the true Mediterranean way of eating – relaxed dining with friends and family – could also be key to the long life expectancy they enjoy.
Shona explains what a day eating a healthy mediterranean diet could look like
Mediterranean Toast: freshly made whole wheat toast (it’s important the bread is freshly made each day and is the type that will go hard by the end of the day – do not use the processed kind in a packet). Put mashed avocado on the toast then pile on chopped olives, hummus, tomatoes and feta cheese.
Freshly grilled or barbecued sardines with lemon juice and garlic, served with a tomato salsa and a large green salad.
Grilled mackerel with ratatouille, made with aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, basil and olive oil.
Fresh figs stuffed with ricotta cheese and topped with fresh honey and a sprinkle of nuts.
Fresh fruit, such as local delicacies like nectarines, peaches and oranges, along with some fresh nuts and chickpeas.
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