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Taking 5 with Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos

Dr Catherine shares her passion for the Mediterranean diet

Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos is the Executive Dean for Health & Medical Sciences at RMIT University. She’s also an accredited practising dietitian and a recognised expert in Dietetics with an international standing as a leader in Mediterranean diet research for the prevention and management of heart disease and diabetes, having authored about 100 scientific publications and three books that share the recipes used in her research studies.

Ahead of our next event with Dr Catherine to discuss her latest findings about the Mediterranean Diet and type 2 diabetes, we caught up with her to find out why she’s so passionate about this way of eating, what she’s currently researching (there’s an opportunity for you to participate) and her top recipes to cook at home.

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, our free online event Diet & Diabetes: What You Need To Know is on Tuesday 5 October at 7:00pm (AEDT). We’ll be learning about how this eating style can help to reduce insulin resistance, prevent or manage diabetes, a condition which affects over 1 million Australians. Registrations are essential - get your tickets here!

Can you tell us about your background and why you’ve focused your career on the Mediterranean diet?

I am an Australian-born daughter of Greek migrants who arrived in Melbourne in the 1960s and I grew up surrounded by the Mediterranean cuisine. My father kept a rich vegetable garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, green beans, and wild edible leafy greens and of course we had a lemon tree and an olive tree. My mother was a fabulous and fastidious cook who focused on taste and prepared wonderful dishes using fresh vegetables from the garden and many are featured in my cookbooks.

At University I studied Science and Pharmacology and then went on to do Nutrition and Dietetics. Some years into my career as a dietitian I met Professor Kerin O’Dea, who inspired me to study the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and longevity of Greek migrants.

That was over 25 years ago! I have completed multiple studies examining the health impacts of the Mediterranean cuisine on chronic diseases such as diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, and dementia.

You’ve written three books about the Mediterranean diet, why do you think this way of eating is so beneficial?

I had been studying the health benefits of the Mediterranean cuisine for over a decade before I wrote my first book ‘The Mediterranean Diet’. I would present my findings at conferences and publishing journal articles and doctors and other health professionals would ask when I would publish the recipes from my trials so that they could advise their patients what to eat to stay healthy.

My research has shown that this way of eating is not only important for health and longevity but it is also very palatable and sustainable. Many studies have now shown that a Mediterranean diet is easier to follow long term than a low fat diet because it is tasty and the meals are satisfying.

Although most people will know what foods to eat to stay healthy, knowing how to prepare healthy meals is sometimes challenging. This is especially true for vegetables which can be quite bland on their own, especially legumes (cooked dried beans).

Our national health survey data shows that only 7% of adults are consuming enough vegetables each day (5 serves per day being the recommended amounts).

A traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables and vegetarian foods and what makes the vegetables so tasty (palatable) is cooking them with extra virgin olive oil and seasoning with fresh herbs and lemon juice.

An important element of the Mediterranean cuisine is the tomato based sauce which forms the basis of many dishes. Often called saltsa in Greek or sofrito in Italian, this sauce is rich in ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties such as extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs which are important in preventing chronic disease.

The first cookbook focuses on the traditional recipes that I grew up with and used in my first diabetes trial in the 1990s. It includes recipes from the menu from that trial.

The second cookbook ‘The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook’ focusses on general health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and includes a number of recipes from across the Mediterranean – Italy and Spain – as well as Greek recipes.

The third book is titled ‘The Heart Health Guide’ and is focused on the heart health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet. The Heart Health Guide reports findings from our AUSMED Heart Trial, which is a secondary prevention trial in people who have had a heart attack with the aim of preventing a second heart attack by following a Mediterranean diet.

If people come from diverse cultural backgrounds, how can they gain the benefits of the Mediterranean diet while still enjoying their cultural cuisine?

An important part of the research that we are completing here in Australia using the Mediterranean diet is to ensure we retain the key elements of cuisines from different cultural backgrounds while including some important Mediterranean elements. The elements of  the Mediterranean diet, such as prioritising extra virgin olive oil, eating vegetables with every meal and including dairy every day, can be implemented into any cuisine.

What research are you currently doing?

I am currently involved in a number of studies using the Mediterranean diet in chronic disease management however the main ones are as follows:

The MedFastTrial is a new study in people with type 2 diabetes where we are investigating the effects of a traditional Mediterranean Diet in one arm, the other arm includes the traditional Mediterranean diet with time restricted fasting, and the third arm is the standard healthy diet for diabetes management. The trial will run for 6 months We are recruiting for this trial now and there’s the option to participate via TeleHealth.

The MEDWALK Trial is a multicentre trial in residential aged care participants where we are implementing a Mediterranean diet using my first cookbook ‘The Mediterranean diet’ as a guide, and walking as exercise daily. In this trial we are investigating the effects of a Mediterranean diet and walking in the prevention of dementia in elderly people. This trial will run for 2 years.

What’s your favourite food to cook at home?

I have many favourites — especially those that remind me of my parents, my father growing the wonderfully tasting home grown veggies, and my mother’s talented hand in the kitchen.

My favourite vegetable is eggplant. One delicious eggplant dish is “Briami” – a vegetable bake rich is tomato based ‘saltsa’, of course liberally dressed with extra virgin olive oil.

Another favourite is eggplant moussaka. I have converted the traditional recipe to a vegetarian one, with the help of my vegetarian daughters, which replaces meat with mushrooms and lentils. Most people don’t realise they are not eating meat and it takes yummy.

What does wellbeing mean to you?

I often say health and wellbeing together as wellbeing has to include good health for me, but also feeling happy and having purpose. In my studies with the long living people of Ikaria one of the key factors that they reported keeps them living long is having purpose – being useful in society.

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