With the New Year well under way now many people are developing new habits and cementing patterns of eating for 2017. According to the US News and World report, the top three dietary patterns are 1. The Dash Diet, 2. The Mediterranean Diet and 3. The Mind Diet.

I’ll cover the Dash and Mind diets later this year and focus on the Mediterranean diet in today’s blog. Interestingly researchers have only recently discovered that people who stick with the Mediterranean diet appear to have less brain shrinkage, as they grow older. The team used MRI scans to test 401 people in a three-year period. Of course there are many other established health benefits which I will mention below.

So what does the traditional Mediterranean Diet look like? It’s certainly not symbolised by the white french bread stick or the choc-au-pain enjoyed by many with their breakfast coffee in Mediterranean counties today.

Culturally, despite the differences between Moroccans, French, Greek and others living around the Mediterranean basin, they shared a traditional diet with many common characteristics some seventy to eighty years ago.  There was an abundance of vegetables, fruits, spices, seafood, breads, cereal foods usually made from wheat, nuts, and olive oil, at mealtimes.

 ‘He is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines. He walks to work daily and labors in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land. … His midday, main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from grazing in thyme-filled pastures. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savory cuisine…….His is the lowest heart-attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the Western world’.

The description above of the ‘low-coronary-risk male’ living on the Isle of Crete, in the aftermath of  world war two, appeared in the Seven Countries Study, and focused the world’s attention on the traditional Mediterranean diet (MD).

To help us understand the protective component of the diet, isolated nutrients have frequently been studied in large, well-designed, randomised clinical trials, typically with null effects. It appears that this focus on nutrients rather than on foods is in fact counterproductive.

Compared to other Western diets, the traditional MD is considered somewhat of a paradox. Although fat consumption was high, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer was lower than other European countries. Rather than limiting total fat intake, the MD focused more on the enjoyment of healthier fats.

On the menu were monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish. If you were to follow this diet today, limiting your intake of processed and packaged foods ensures a better balance of fats and a lower intake of the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.

In a meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal, which collectively included more than 1.5 million participants, the researchers found that greater adherence to a MD resulted in significant improvements to health, including a 9% drop in overall mortality, a 9% drop in mortality from cardiovascular disease, 6% reduction in incidence of or mortality from neoplasm, and a 13% reduction in incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Unfortunately, the food and meal patterns of these Mediterranean countries have changed considerably over the last number of years. In Crete, for example, people consume less fruit and olive oil than they did historically. They also eat more meat, including processed meats today. With these dietary and lifestyle changes, low rates of heart disease are no longer prevalent.

A weekly Mediterranean-style shopping list has few processed foods, but is big on colour and flavour.

  • Shellfish: Clams, crab, lobster, mussels, scallops and shrimp.
  • Fish: anchovies, halibut, salmon, sardines, bream, sole, tilapia, trout, tuna and swordfish.
  • Fruits: citrus, berries, cherries, dates, figs, grapes, melons, apples, peaches, pears and pomegranates.
  • Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, avocados, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, courgette, carrots, celery, corn, aubergines, fennel, green beans, green leafy vegetables, olives, onions, potatoes, radishes, squash and tomatoes.
  • Grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, kamut, oatmeal, polenta, quinoa, wheat berries, whole grains, stone-ground breads, tortillas and pasta.
  • Nuts: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnut, pecans, pine nuts and pistachios.
  • Seeds: sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and linseed.
  • Legumes: cannelloni beans, borlotti beans, fava beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, split peas.
  • Herbs and spices (fresh or dried): basil, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, fennel seed, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, pepper (black or red), rosemary, saffron, sage, tarragon, thyme,
  • Dairy products: Natural yoghurt, lower fat cheeses like feta, mozzarella, brie, camembert and goats.
  • Oils: rapeseed, extra-virgin olive, grapeseed, and sesame oil
  • Chicken and Eggs: chicken and duck eggs weekly
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Red meat (only 1-3 times monthly)
  • And don’t forget the Wine!