Live longer on the Mediter­ranean Diet

Ex­perts are urg­ing us to eat more like the Mediter­raneans as a diet rich in fish, fruit, veg and olive oil could help pre­vent a string of dis­eases. Lisa Sal­mon re­ports

Friday - - Front Page -

Mediter­raneanstyle eat­ing has long been thought of as healthy, but now even main­stream med­i­cal ex­perts are singing its praises – claim­ing that it can pro­tect against many chronic dis­eases.

There’s mount­ing ev­i­dence to sug­gest that a diet full of fresh fruit, veg­eta­bles, fish, beans, whole­grains, nuts and olive oil – key in­gre­di­ents in Mediter­ranean cui­sine – could make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in re­duc­ing the risk of ill­nesses like heart dis­ease, cancer, di­a­betes and de­men­tia.

Juliot Vi­no­lia, clin­i­cal di­eti­tian and con­sul­tant nu­tri­tion­ist at iCare Clin­ics, Dubai, be­lieves that we should all be adopt­ing the Med diet be­cause “avoid­ing in­take of high-purine pro­teins, which are found in red meat, low­ers the risk for de­vel­op­ing arthri­tis by re­duc­ing lev­els of uric acid in the body”.

In­stead of eat­ing fast food that is high in sat­u­rated fats and leads to obe­sity, Vi­no­lia says it is ad­vis­able for people in the UAE to switch to a Mediter­ranean diet, which com­prises healthy food op­tions that con­tain plant-based protein, such as legumes and low-fat dairy prod­ucts.

In ad­di­tion, the Med diet is rich in pro­teins that activate brown adi­pose tis­sue, which is in­stru­men­tal in burn­ing calo­ries and aiding weight loss, says Vi­no­lia.

UK-based GP Dr Si­mon Poole, who runs a non-commercial web­site (www.tas­te­ofthemed.com) to pro­mote the health ben­e­fits of the Mediter­ranean diet, con­curs.

He says that the Med diet is ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing chronic dis­eases be­cause healthy food choices im­prove choles­terol, blood su­gar lev­els and gen­eral well-be­ing.

Vi­no­lia adds that the Mediter­ranean diet is help­ful in boost­ing the im­mune sys­tem be­cause it’s based on “gut-friendly bac­te­ria from fer­mented foods like yo­gurt, and sol­u­ble fi­bre-rich foods such as ba­nanas, gar­lic, as­para­gus and onions, which sup­port the growth of pro­bi­otic bac­te­ria.”

The think­ing is that, rather than wait­ing un­til health prob­lems arise and then seek­ing med­i­cal help, people need to be en­cour­aged to pre­vent ill­ness more, with eat­ing well be­ing a key com­po­nent.

Dr Poole says, “With Alzheimer’s cases ex­pected to rise three­fold over the next 30 years, and a healthy diet and life­style clearly dra­mat­i­cally re­duc­ing the risk of de­vel­op­ing de­men­tia, we feel there’s com­pelling ev­i­dence for more in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion and health pro­mo­tion around healthy diet and life­style.”

D r Poole says that the rea­son the Med diet is so healthy is be­cause it’s “high pro­tec­tion and low dam­age”. This means it con­tains rel­a­tively small quan­ti­ties of un­de­sir­able sat­u­rated fats, but high amounts of vi­ta­min, min­eral and an­tiox­i­dant-packed fruit, veg­eta­bles, olive oil and fish oils.

“We are now be­gin­ning to un­der­stand why all the el­e­ments in the Mediter­ranean diet come to­gether,” he says.

“It’s a bal­ance of polyun­sat­u­rates, high mo­noun­sat­u­rates in the form of olive oil, low sat­u­rated fat be­cause red meat is con­sumed only once

ev­ery three or four weeks, and lowg­ly­caemic-in­dex car­bo­hy­drates.

“It’s no one thing,” he continues. “And in­stead of vi­ta­mins be­ing boiled out of veg­eta­bles, they are ab­sorbed into the olive oil as part of the cook­ing process.

“It’s a so­phis­ti­cated re­la­tion­ship be­tween all these foods and the way they’re pre­pared and eaten slowly.”

Tra­di­tion­ally fam­i­lies across the Med al­ways eat to­gether and a leisurely meal can last two hours, as ev­ery­one from the young to the old grazes on sev­eral small cour­ses.

Dr Poole points out that the preva­lence of high blood pres­sure, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, obe­sity, cancer and di­a­betes has his­tor­i­cally been sig­nif­i­cantly lower in Mediter­ranean coun­tries, like Greece and Italy, than in other parts of the world.

This gen­eral trend has been con­firmed in nu­mer­ous stud­ies, link­ing it with the diet of the re­gion. On the other hand, the seden­tary life­style in the Mid­dle East along with the pop­u­lar­ity of fast food has lead to “a steady rise in child obe­sity, di­a­betes and re­nal dis­eases,” says Vi­no­lia. “Also there is a high in­take of red meat on a daily ba­sis, which adds to the prob­lem.”

Ex­perts claim that chang­ing to a Mediter­ranean diet can lower choles­terol and aid weight loss, hence re­duce the in­ci­dence of heart dis­ease and di­a­betes.

“En­gag­ing in phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity for at least 20 min­utes four times a week in com­bi­na­tion with the Mediter­ranean diet can be an ideal so­lu­tion for the UAE in pre­vent­ing such epi­demics,” says Vi­no­lia.

So why aren’t we all eat­ing Mediter­ranean? There are sev­eral bar­ri­ers that pre­vent many people from do­ing so, Dr Poole be­lieves. “It in­volves cook­ing from scratch and [us­ing] nat­u­ral, un­pro­cessed in­gre­di­ents, but we’re in a cul­ture of buy-one-get-one-free and there are more likely to be re­duc­tions on un­healthy prod­ucts than there are on healthy in­gre­di­ents,” he says.

“Our cul­ture seems to re­sist the idea of ed­u­cat­ing young­sters to re­ally en­joy and cel­e­brate healthy eat­ing, which is a great shame.”

Dr Poole sug­gests that people who feel un­able to over­haul their diet com­pletely can sim­ply in­tro­duce a few Mediter­ranean-in­spired tweaks in­stead. “Cel­e­brate and en­joy ba­sic in­gre­di­ents,” he says. “Com­bine veg­eta­bles with fish and white meat, driz­zle food with olive oil and have plenty of fruit.”

He thinks preven­tion of ill­ness is al­ways bet­ter than the cure.

“It should be about how we can re­main healthy in the first place,” he says. “But, of course, you can’t put the Mediter­ranean diet in a pill.”

Bri­tish Di­etetic As­so­ci­a­tion spokesper­son Sioned Quirke is an­other sup­porter of the Med diet, and ex­plains that it in­cludes most of the prin­ci­ples of healthy eat­ing that di­eti­cians pro­mote.

“It’s def­i­nitely worth en­cour­ag­ing people to make at least one sim­ple change to­wards Mediter­ranean eat­ing,” says Quirke, who has also set up a web­site (www.quirkynu­tri­tion.co.uk) to pro­vide clear and safe ad­vice on healthy eat­ing.

“The fruit and veg part is mas­sive – people know they should have five serv­ings of fruit and veg a day, but I don’t think they re­alise the ex­tent to which it can ben­e­fit us.

“It’s not just the an­tiox­i­dants, vi­ta­mins and min­er­als – we know that they help pre­vent cancer and re­duce the risk of heart dis­ease, too.”

Quirke ad­vises people to “eat the rain­bow” – in other words, to eat as many dif­fer­ent-coloured fruit and veg­eta­bles as pos­si­ble, as each colour con­tains dif­fer­ent vi­ta­min and min­eral con­tents.

She says that while olive oil is an im­por­tant part of Mediter­ranean eat­ing, it’s still bet­ter not to fry food in it, but use it in mari­nades, sauces or salad dress­ings in­stead.

Though there’s no need to cut out meat com­pletely, some of it could be re­placed with beans or lentils, she sug­gests, as they’re a good source of protein but don’t con­tain sat­u­rated fat – plus, as a bonus, they’re much cheaper than meat.

“No­body’s per­fect, but if you make at least one prac­ti­cal Mediter­ranean­type change to your diet, it will ben­e­fit your health,” she prom­ises.

Fresh fruit and veg and olive oil are the keys to health, ex­perts say

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