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The Mediterranean Diet: Nutrition For Wellbeing

Written by Katherine Dose (B. Med. Sc.) using research by Dr Catherine Istiopoulos.

Ever wondered what all the hype is about when it comes to the Mediterranean diet? The Mediterranean diet is proven to help reduce inflammation, prevent the effects of ageing, and reduce the risk of chronic disease and cancer.

Let’s dive into the benefits of each element of this anti-inflammatory diet and why it’s a cuisine style to enjoy as a whole.

12 principles of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is for everyone — not just those following the Cretan (Greek) eating style. Simply apply the following principles to your cuisine style of choice!

1. Extra virgin olive oil as the primary added fat

Including 3-4 tablespoons (60-80mL) of extra virgin olive oil daily provides polyphenols — these powerful antioxidants that have several benefits:

  • Help to prevent chronic heart disease and reduce the risk of cancers
  • Support immune health
  • Helps to improve vascular health (protecting arteries and blood vessels)
  • Improved bone health

2. Eat vegetables in every meal

Leafy greens, onion, garlic and other vegetables contain important nutrients like fibre, folic acid, vitamins and essential minerals. Flavonoids found in vegetables are essential bioactive compounds that provide health benefits, including improved cognition and mood.

Traditional plant-based diets are associated with lower rates of chronic disease and increased longevity.

Garlic, onions, herbs and spices contain plenty of flavinoids or allicin, which have cardiovascular benefits and also help to improve cognitive function. Vegetables high in potassium, magnesium and calcium reduce arterial blood pressure.

Plant Based Meals

3. Include at least two legume meals each week

Both canned or dry legumes contain fibre, protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, selenium, phosphorous, copper and potassium — the ideal nourishing alternative to meat. Eating legumes promotes a healthy heart and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

4. Fish or shellfish three times a week

Fish and seafood contain long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids which play a role in regulating neural function and cardiovascular health. Omega-3 may also play a role in improving inflammatory conditions.

5. Less red meat

Meat contains bioavailable vitamin B12 and is a source of protein iron, selenium and zinc. However, excess consumption has adverse health outcomes. Choosing wild, free-range, grass-fed meat and replacing meat with legumes, white meats, or fish will improve overall health.

6. Fresh fruit daily

Fruit is a convenient snack, naturally pre-packaged by nature. Two serves of fruit daily provides fibre, A, C and B vitamins, folate, and flavonoids which help to protect against the oxidative process that contributes to ageing.

7. Include nuts every day and dried fruit as snack or dessert

One serve of nuts is around 30g and provides healthy fat, fibres, vitamin C and E, selenium, magnesium and antioxidants. Eating nuts is associated with reduced oxidative stress (ageing) and a lower risk of heart disease.

8. Eat dairy daily

Two serves of dairy each day, preferably including fermented dairy such as greek yoghurt, contain calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, zinc, potassium, vitamins A and B12 and lactic acid bacteria, which promote gut health and reduce risk of colon cancer. Yoghurt can help to regulate transit time from mouth to colon.

Med Diet For Australians

9. Each cheese in moderation, preferably feta

Fermented dairy foods, like feta cheese, are high in beneficial bioactive compounds that promote gut health and optimal immunity. Three servings of cheese per week, where a serve is 30g, provides these health benefits.

10. Include wholegrain bread and cereal

Wholegrain bread, pasta, rice and potato are a source of fermentable carbohydrates, including fibre, resistant starch and oligosaccharides. Whole grains also contain antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, copper and selenium. These nutrients protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Fibre is an indigestible carbohydrate, broken down into short-chain fatty acids by healthy gut bacteria to provide energy to the cells lining the gut. Short-chain fatty acids play a role in reducing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other inflammatory conditions¹.

11. Have sweets in moderation on special occasions

Homemade sweets are less refined and more likely to contain healthy ingredients such as nuts, extra virgin olive oil and milk. Keeping sweets for special occasions helps to improve liver health — excess refined sugar consumption is associated with fatty liver and poor health outcomes.

12. Include 3 eggs each week

Free-range or omega 3 varieties of egg add protein, choline, selenium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorous and fat-soluble vitamins to your total nutrient intake. They also contain omega 3 fatty acids and other micronutrients that help maintain eye health in later years.

Wine is optional if you enjoy alcohol when socialising — red is best

One key element of the Mediterranean diet is eating with others — a dining table is a central place where family and friends come together for a sense of community. While alcohol isn’t required to socialise, it is an optional part of the Mediterranean diet.

Choose red wine where possible — it contains antioxidants such as polyphenols and resveratrol, which aren’t found in white wine or spirits. Polyphenols may help to protect the mucosal lining of the gut. Resveratrol protects heart and kidney health.  

It’s about flavour-filled cuisine rather than individual ingredients

Eating meals that combine vegetables with healthy fats will increase the antioxidant capacity and nutrient absorption from foods. For example, cooking tomatoes in olive oil increases lycopene absorption, a nutrient linked with reduced cancer and heart disease.

Aromatic herbs such as lemon balm and marjoram (oregano) increase the antioxidant capacity of salads, as does dressing salad with extra virgin olive oil combined with wine or apple vinegar.  

Using herbs and spices in meal preparation can help reduce the use of salt used to enhance the flavour of meals.  Excessive salt use is associated with increased hypertension. Cooking and learning cooking skills is also linked to improved health outcomes!

Multicultural Mediterranean Diet

Does the Mediterranean diet require cooking at home?

Preparing food and eating together are key elements of the traditional Mediterranean diet, however in clinical studies adaptations to allow for convenience and limited access to cooking facilities prove successful.

Examples of “cook-free” meals that fulfil elements of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Salad mix with whole-grain crackers and canned legumes or lentils
  • Frozen vegetables with microwave rice, canned chicken and pepper
  • Cucumber, tomato and carrot with wholegrain bread, canned fish and lemon juice
  • Rocket or spinach with couscous and nuts or nut butter

Extra virgin olive oil can be added to all of these examples!

The Mediterranean diet is the focus of research by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. You can learn more about her research in the webinars on Diet and Diabetes and Eating For Health: The Anti-Inflammatory Diet.

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