Mediterranean Diet: The Basics

The Mediterranean diet is the typical diet of the regions around southern Italy, Greece and Spain, and is one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil. It has long been heralded as one of the healthiest diets worldwide and is thought to be especially beneficial for the heart, since research has shown that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease [1]. In fact, the diet has been shown to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol that can lead to the accumulation of fatty streaks on arterial walls.

But that’s not all – the Mediterranean diet has also been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, including breast cancer, as well as cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease [2].

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that many health groups recommend following a Mediterranean diet.


Principles of the Mediterranean Diet

pasta.jpgThe traditional Mediterranean diet started in Italy thousands of years ago and spread across Greece and Spain, where the cultures added their own variations to the traditional diet, such as including feta cheese. It garnered worldwide attention in the 1990s, when studies began to show that it may help improve heart health [3].

The Mediterranean diet is high fibre since it is largely plant-based, focussing on fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and minimising processed foods and red meat. It also replaces saturated fats, such as butter, with monounsaturated olive oil, and uses herbs and spices to flavour food instead of large amounts of salt.

If you’re interested in following a Mediterranean diet, here are the main principles:

  • Focus your diet around plant foods, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes (beans and lentils)
  • Eat nuts and seeds daily (plain – not honey-roasted or salted), but as they are high in calories, try to stick to no more than a handful a day (i.e., sprinkle seeds on a salad or throw a few nuts over a bowl of vegetable soup)
  • Replace butter and margarine with olive oil
  • Avoid trans fats found in processed foods
  • Use herbs and spices to add flavour and add salt only at the table, rather than during cooking
  • Avoid red meat, instead enjoy fish and poultry two or more times per week
  • Incorporate moderate amounts of free-range eggs and organic dairy in your diet
  • If desired, enjoy a small glass of red wine with your evening meal

There is something else that is notable about Mediterranean food culture and that’s the social aspect of eating. In Italy, families often enjoy meals together, which not only slows one down when eating, but also creates a social and relaxed atmosphere that may help digestion. However, if you’re eating alone, try to take the time to sit down to eat your meal and focus on the beautiful flavours, eating slowly with mindful awareness.


Bread is a Staple & Fats aren’t Demonised

One of the best things about the Mediterranean diet is that you can eat bread and still be healthy! In fact, bread is an important part of the Mediterranean diet and is eaten with most main meals. The important thing is that it is usually whole grain and simply made, free from additives and preservatives, and is not slathered with butter or margarine. Instead, it is eaten plain or dipped in heart-healthy olive oil.

antipasti4.jpgSpeaking of olive oil, another benefit of the traditional Mediterranean diet is that it does not limit fats and instead focusses on the quality of the fat, favouring monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and limiting saturated fats (butter and lard) and trans fats found in hydrogenated oils that are often included in processed foods such as store-bought biscuits. Monounsaturated fats as a replacement for saturated and trans fats have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol [4], especially extra-virgin olive oil (the least processed form), as it tends to contain the highest levels of protective antioxidants called phenols.

In addition, olive oil and oily fish that are frequently consumed as part of the traditional Mediterranean diet contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and have been shown to lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting and may help moderate blood pressure [5].

So, how much olive oil is OK to consume daily? According to the FDA, anywhere between one and four tablespoons has a beneficial effect [6]. However, it is important that the olive oil should replace unhealthy fats in your diet and should not add to your calorie intake – so don’t slather your buttered bread in olive oil in an attempt to be healthy! We also recommend seeking out a high-quality olive oil (e.g., cold-pressed and extra-virgin) as the nutrients in olive oil are quite sensitive to processing and so can be lost in low-quality products.


You Don’t Have to be Tea Total

There’s no denying that excessive alcohol consumption is not healthy; however, in Mediterranean cultures they typically enjoy a small amount of wine with the evening meal – around 150 ml daily for women and 250 ml daily for men under the age of 65.


Discover the Mediterranean Diet on a Tailor-made Italy Holiday

We can’t think of a better way to discover the Mediterranean diet and food culture than visiting Italy as part of a tailor-made holiday. We specialise in multi-centre holidays to Italy, which allow you to visit more than one city on your Italy holiday. This means you can discover Italy’s diverse food culture and enjoy regional dishes, such as carciofi alla Romana in Rome, zuppa di farro in Tuscany and risi e bisi in Venice.

To find out more about our tailor-made Italy holidays, click here to browse our wide selection of Italy multi-centres, or chat to one of our friendly travel experts by calling (UK) 01223 637331 or (US) 347-594-5500. Alternatively, to send an online enquiry, please click here.

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