Top health experts are urging Brits to eat more like our Mediterranean cousins, as a diet rich in fish, fruit, veg and olive oil could help prevent a string of major diseases. Lisa Salmon reports
Mediterranean-style eating has long been thought of as healthy, but now even mainstream medics are singing its praises – and advising that people in the UK take heed.
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that a diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, beans, wholegrains, nuts and olive oil – all key characteristics of Mediterranean cuisine – could make a significant difference in reducing the risk of illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia.
Just recently, leading UK doctors collectively wrote to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, urging that the Mediterranean diet is given much more priority in the UK.
Sent just before December’s G8 summit on dementia, the letter pointed out that a Mediterranean diet is “possibly the best strategy currently available for tackling dementia”, and stressed that a large body of evidence demonstrates its effectiveness in preventing other chronic diseases too.
The thinking is that, rather than waiting until health problems arise and then seeking medicines, Brits need to be encouraged to prevent illness more, with eating well being a key component.
Cambridge GP Dr Simon Poole, one of the organisers of the letter, says: “With Alzheimer’s cases expected to rise threefold over the next 30 years, and diet and lifestyle clearly dramatically reducing the risk of developing dementia, we feel there’s compelling evidence for more investment in education and health promotion around healthy diet and lifestyle.”
Dr Poole, who runs a non-commercial website (www.tasteofthemed.com) to promote the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and also imports extra virgin olive oil to the UK, explains that the benefits of the diet are linked to it being ‘high protection/low damage’.
This means it contains relatively small quantities of undesirable saturated fats, but high amounts of vitamin, mineral and antioxidant-packed fruits, vegetables, olive oil and fish oils.
“We’re beginning to understand why all the elements in the Mediterranean diet come together,” he explains. “It’s a balance of polyunsaturates, high monounsaturates in the form of olive oil, low saturated fat because red meat is only consumed once every three or four weeks, and low glycaemic index carbohydrates.
“It’s no one thing,” he adds. “And instead of being boiled out of vegetables, vitamins are absorbed into the olive oil as part of the cooking process.
“It’s a sophisticated relationship between all these foods and the way they’re prepared, and eaten slowly.”
Dr Poole points out that the prevalence of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes has historically been significantly lower in Mediterranean countries, like Greece and southern Italy, than in the UK, other northern European countries and the US. This general trend has been confirmed in numerous studies, linking it with the diet of the region.
So why aren’t we all eating Mediterranean?
There are several barriers that prevent many Britons from doing so, Dr Poole believes.
“It involves cooking from scratch and [using] natural, unprocessed ingredients, but we’re in a culture of buy-one-get-one-free and there are more likely to be reductions on unhealthy products than there are on healthy products,” he says.
“Our culture seems to resist the idea of educating our youngsters to really enjoy and celebrate healthy eating, which is a great sadness.”
The price of olive oil, which is rich in antioxidants, can also put people off.
While extra virgin olive oil is priced at around £2-£3 for 500ml, double that amount of vegetable oil costs around £1.50.
“It’s an amazing oil – research has suggested, for example, that 20ml of olive oil a day could reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as 40%,” says Dr Poole.
“People often buy a bottle of wine for a fiver, but you can buy a big bottle of olive oil for around that price too. You make your choices.”
He suggests that people who feel unable to overhaul their diet completely can simply introduce a few Mediterranean-inspired tweaks instead, and “celebrate and enjoy basic ingredients, combine vegetables with fish and white meat, drizzle with olive oil, have plenty of fruit”.
He adds: “The way we deal with illness in this country is effectively to wait for it to happen, and then rely on pharmaceutical companies to produce a pill to sort it out.
“It should be about how we can remain healthy in the first place. But, of course, you can’t put the Mediterranean diet in a pill.”
British Dietetic Association spokesperson Sioned Quirke is another supporter of the Mediterranean diet, and explains that it includes most of the principles of healthy eating that dietitians promote.
“It’s definitely worth encouraging people to make at least one simple change towards Mediterranean eating,” says Quirke, who also set up a website (www.quirkynutrition.co.uk) to provide clear and safe advice on healthy eating.
“The fruit and veg part is massive – people know they should have five pieces of fruit and veg a day, but I don’t think they realise the extent to which it can benefit us.
“It’s not just the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, we know that they help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease too.”
Quirke advises people to ‘eat the rainbow’ – in other words, to eat as many different coloured fruit and vegetables as possible, as each colour contains different vitamin and mineral contents.
She says that while olive oil is an important part of Mediterranean eating, it’s still better not to fry food in it, but use it in marinades, sauces or salad dressings instead.
Though there’s no need to cut out meat completely, some of it could be replaced with beans or lentils, she suggests, as they’re a good source of protein but don’t contain saturated fat – plus, as a bonus, they’re much cheaper than meat.
“Nobody’s perfect, but if you make at least one practical Mediterranean-type change to your diet, it will benefit your health,” she promises.
ENJOY A TASTE OF THE MED
Tempted? Here are Dr Simon Poole’s top tips for giving your diet a Mediterranean make over:
:: Prepare plenty of beans by soaking and then freezing them. Then they’ll be ready to cook, with herbs and spices.
:: Give your breakfast a boost by sprinkling nuts and seeds onto your oats or cereal, along with fruit and low-fat yoghurt.
:: Roast root vegetables in olive oil, and halfway through cooking add red onions, chilli or fennel.
:: Replace salt with herbs and spices. As well as enhancing flavour, they’ve been shown to possess potentially powerful health benefits.
:: Include fish in your diet. It’s a good source of protein and brain-boosting omega 3 fats.
What is your experience of following a Mediterranean diet?