Health tips from the Mediterranean

Bellarome has a passion for the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and shares with you here some health tips from Italy and beyond.


Borlotti beans

Borlotti beans are a big part of the Italian cuisine and they can be found in anything from soups and stews to salads, or simply served alone with olive oil. The Veneto region is suggested as one of the best for Borlotti beans, where the beans are served in a stew with pasta.

Beans in general tend to be a healthy, protein-rich food choice and Borlotti beans in particular are a the rich source of cholesterol-lowering fibre too, which can help improve cardiovascular health. They are also rich in potassium, zinc, selenium, copper, calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorus. And it doesn't end there: Borlotti beans also contain omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, also known as the essential fatty acids, and a range of B vitamins.

They taste surprisingly good simply tossed in garlic, olive oil and salt!

Want to try Borlotti beans in Veneto? Check out our holidays to the region - we can also arrange cooking classes and Veneto cuisine tours.

Although spinach contains calcium, it is not a good source of calcium! This is because the calcium is bound to something else in spinach called oxalates. This prevents it's absorption. Better healthy sources of calcium are kale, broccoli, oranges and figs.

But don't throw the spinach out straight away! It is still a great source of B vitamins, vitamin C and iron, as well as fibre.

The Italians love to eat their greens lightly pan-fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli.

Chestnuts are endemic in Italy in the autumn and winter months and they are also native to the hilly forest of China, Japan, other areas of Europe, and North America. They belong to the beech or Fagaceae family and, for botany fans, their scientific names is Castanea sativa. They shouldn't be confused with horse chestnuts (or conkers) - they are not the same thing!

As well as being delicious, chestnuts are packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre, and they are also reasonably low in fat, making them a great snack. Somewhat suprisingly, they are a particularly good source of vitamin C and folates and, because they are gluten-free, they can be ground to make a flour that can be used as a substitute for wheat and other gluten-containing grains in recipes for cakes.

Follow our simply recipe to roast your own chestnuts or bake a delicious chocolate cake!

Source: Umesh Rudrappa, Chestnuts nutrition facts (online). Available at: Accessed 28/11/2013.

Rosemary is a fragrant herb, which grows natively in the Mediterranean and is popularly used in cooking. It is actually a member of the mint family and its name derives from the Latin for dew of the sea as it is able to thrive in dry soil with just the moisture carried in sea air as a water source.

While I'm sure you have encountered rosemary in cooking, you may not be aware of its many health benefits. As well as adding an unmistakeable flavour to culinary dishes, it is also an antiseptic, anti-oxidant, bronchodilator and "brain tonic". In herbal medicine it is used to treat conditions relating to the head, such as headaches, blocked sinuses and even poor memory and concentration. Indeed, fans of Shakespeare may have noted that, in Hamlet, Ophelia says, "There’s rosemary that’s for remembrance", which is indicative of the Tudor's belief that rosemary could enhance memory.

This isn't all historic folklore though. Researchers at Northumbria University have found that rosemary essential oil can enhance memory by as much as 75% [1] and extracts from rosemary have been shown to be effective against viruses that result in respiratory infections in humans [2].

So, as well as increasing your use of rosemary in food (try our delicious recipe for Tuscan bean soup), perhaps think about burning rosemary essential oil in an oil burner in the home - it not only smells great but it may also improve your memory and help you keep colds and flu away!

1. Jemma McCready and Mark Moss, Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society, Harrogate (UK), 9 April 2013.
2. Shin HB, Choi MS, Ryu B, Lee NR, Kim HI, Choi HE, Chang J, Lee KT, Jang DS, Inn KS, Antiviral activity of carnosic acid against respiratory syncytial virus, Virology Journal, 2013, 10(1), 303.

Tomatoes are a staple in Italy and feature in many dishes from lasagna to pizza to parmigiana and they just seem to taste that bit better when they are served with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. The good news is that it seems the oil not only improves the taste but also improves the health benefits associated with eating tomatoes.


Well, tomatoes contain a compound called lycopene, which is an antioxidant. Antioxidants mop up the damaging free radicals that zip about causing damage to DNA and other structures in the body and eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods may help prevent degenerative conditions.

Looking at lycopene specifically, high levels of it in the blood seem to correlate with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration. In particular, men who ate 10 servings or more per week of foods containing lycopene decreased their risk of prostate cancer by 45%!

So, why was I talking about olive oil again? Well, lycopene is more easily absorbed by the body if it is accompanied by fat and adding a little oil to your tomatoes (as well as cooking them to break down the cell wall) dramatically increases the amount of lycopene that your body can absorb.

Anyone for a Caprese salad?!

Karppi J, Kurl S, Nurmi T, et al.: Serum lycopene and the risk of cancer: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) study. Ann Epidemiol 19 (7): 512-8, 2009.
The secret health benefits of coffee

Recent research has suggested that the Italian morning tipple of choice is in fact not the devil in beverage form and, on the contrary, it may have significant health benefits. Caffeine addicts read on!

Anti-cancer: researchers at Harvard University no less examined the effects of coffee on 47,000 men and found that those consuming in excess of six cups per day (we can only assume they never slept) had a 20% reduced risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer. The researchers suggested that the polyphenols found in coffee may have an antioxidant effect resulting in this "protection".

Type II diabetes: with rising obesity levels, type II diabetes is high on the health radar in the UK and, interestingly, the European Science Foundation found that moderate coffee consumption resulted in a 25% reduced risk of developing the condition. We doubt the participants of this trial were adding sugar to their coffee!

Stroke: in an American study women who drank at least one cup of coffee per day were found to be 20-25% less likely to have a stroke. Similar findings also resulted from a Japanese trial.

Cognitive benefits: we all know coffee can make you feel more awake but did you know that it is also thought to assist in dementia? Numerous studies have found that, although it does not appear to protect against these conditions, it does seem to slow prgression.

Hmmm...put the kettle on!

Read more:
K. M. Wilson, et al., Coffee Consumption and Prostate Cancer Risk and Progression in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, J. Natl Cancer Inst., 2011, 103 (11): 876-884
Dr. Nathan Matusheski , Professor Jaakko Tuomilehto, Dr. Pilar Riobó Serván and Professor Edith Feskens, Good things in life: Can coffee help in diabetes prevention?, World Congress of Diabetes Prevention and Its Complications, 12th November 2012, Madrid, Spain
S. C. Larsson, Coffee Consumption and Risk of Stroke in Women, Stroke, 2011, doi: 10.EFD895DA-0B2D-407D-9F95-57A721B9F988/STROKEAHA.110.603787
C. Cao, et al., High Blood Caffeine Levels in MCI Linked to Lack of Progression to Dementia, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012, 29, 1-14
Italian olives  

We may be more in love with the oil from these small nutrient-packed fruits (yes - olives are a fruit!) than we are the wholefood version but olives are jammed with goodness.

They contain, of course, the heart-healthy oil, rich in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, but you may not know that they also contain a polyphenol called hydroxytyrosol. This attractively named plant compound is the new kid on the block when it comes to antioxidants and it's turning out to be somewhat of a superstar - outshining the likes of vitamin C and green tea with its free radical-fighting prowess.

Recent research suggests that it has a protective effect against cancer and other chronic diseases due to its antioxidant, antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory activity [science lovers: check out the reference at the bottom of the page]. So, if you are going for a holiday in Italy, make sure olives are on the menu!

Want to learn more about olives? Bellarome offer cooking classes and olive grove tours.

Ref: Bernini R., Merendino N., Romani A., Velotti F., Naturally occurring hydroxytyrosol: synthesis and anticancer potential. Curr Med Chem. 2013, 20(5), 655-70.
Ginger: the tummy tamer!

OK, technically, ginger is not from the Mediterranean but it is such a great digestive remedy that I think we'll let that slide!
Ginger has long been used as a natural treatment for nausea, including morning sickness, and is also great to help stimulate digestion and relieve bloating. It's even been used to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis.* It's rich in anti-oxidants (such as vitamin C), minerals, including iron and calcium, and it also contains inulin, which is food for the friendly bacteria (bifidobacteria, found in probiotic drinks) in your gut. If that wasn't enough it's also considered to be anti-inflammatory and heart-friendly too!

So, if you're suffering the effects of one-too-many bicchieri di vino, ginger may be your best friend. It makes an invigorating tea with lemon or you could simply grate it over a salad or jacket potato. If you're feeling brave/desperate, try this ginger-infused detox drink:

A cup of fresh apple juice
Juice of one lemon
1 clove of garlic (crushed)
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
Dash of cayenne pepper

Simply blend everything together, hope for the best and drink!

* Ref: M. Valussi, Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties, Int. J. Food Sci. Nutr., 2012, 63, Suppl 1, 82-89
Artichokes for detoxers

Artichokes are popular in and around Rome and they are typically served with garlic and fresh herbs, making them a great side dish or starter. If you're visiting Rome, look out for Carciofi alla Romana, which means Roman-style artichokes or check out our recipe.

Artichoke leaves are packed with antioxidants and have been credited with lowering cholesterol, making them great for dieters or for those following a healthy diet plan (Speroni et al., 2003). They contain compounds, including cynarin, that help promote the flow of bile from the liver, which is a natural laxative and also helps digest fats. Most "detox" herbs and foods, in part, work by increasing the production of bile and it's a good idea to include these in your daily diet if you can. In fact, some Italians swear by artichokes as a hangover cure!

However, it doesn't just stop there for artichokes. Recent research by a team of Italians found that a diet rich in the flavanoids present in artichokes reduces the risk of breast cancer (Mileo et al., 2012) too. With all this in mind, it's well worth incorporating more artichokes in your diet! 

Speroni E, Cervellati R, Govoni P, Guizzardi S, Renzulli C, Guerra MC., Efficacy of different Cynara scolymus preparations on liver complaints. J. Ethnopharmacol., 2003, 86(2-3):203-11.
Mileo AM, Di Venere D, Linsalata V, Fraioli R, Miccadei S., Artichoke polyphenols induce apoptosis and decrease the invasive potential of the human breast cancer cell line MDA-MB231. J. Cell Physiol., 2012, 227(9):3301-9.