What we eat largely impacts on the way our body functions. Eating poorly or well can make a big difference on both the physical and mental aspects of our body.
But what does “Healthy eating” actually mean? Books, magazine, articles and the internet constantly bombard us with new ways of healthy eating and new diets, mostly fad diets with little scientific evidence of their long-term benefits. This leaves us confused and unsure on what we should eat to be “healthy”: is it a low-carb diet, being vegetarian or maybe following a macrobiotic diet that will futureproof our health?
The best place to start is to look at scientific evidence.
The Mediterranean diet is probably the most researched and studied way of eating in the last 40 years and there is so much solid scientific evidence that following a Mediterranean diet will cut your risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression and dementia. Even when started later in middle age, this lifestyle has been shown to increase life expectancy.
The history and tradition of the Mediterranean diet come from the historic eating and social patterns of the regions around southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and Spain in the early 1960s, when people living in these countries ate locally sourced ingredients and no junk food was available. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet is not really even a “diet” in the way we usually think of them, more like a life-long way of eating and living.
For thousands of years people living along the Mediterranean coast have indulged in a high-fibre diet of fruits and vegetables, also including quality fats and proteins in moderation, and sometimes a glass of locally made wine to complete a meal, too.
These are the shared features of what is usually spoken of as the Mediterranean- style diet:
- High consumption of fruits, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, beans, nuts and seeds;
- Olive oil is the key monounsaturated fat source;
- Dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts;
- Little red meat is eaten;
- Eggs are eaten zero to four times a week; and
- Wine is drunk in moderate (or low) amounts.
Inspired by the principles of the Mediterranean diet, below you’ll find the 8 rules that you should follow if you want to “eat healthy”, maximise your energy levels and increase your life expectancy.
1. Reduce sugar and simple carbs and replace with wholegrains and pulses
Cut drastically your intake of sugary starchy foods, such as cakes, sweets, biscuits, crisps, fruit juices and soft drinks as these rapidly increase your blood sugar, causing sugar spikes, a surge in insulin and weight gain. Limit them to less than twice a week.
Also watch out for foods that get rapidly converted to sugars in your blood and replace them with complex carbohydrates, that are rich in fibre and help to stabilise your blood sugar:
- Replace potatoes, bread, white rice and white pasta with sweet potato, wholegrain or rye bread, brown rice and brown pasta. And also replace with pulses such as lentils, beans, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat. The good bacteria in your gut will thrive on the fibre in these
- Replace breakfast cereals and instant oats with chopped nuts and seeds and rolled jumbo oats, which release sugar
- Replace sweet, tropical fruits such as mangoes, pineapples, grapes, melons and bananas with berries, apples, pears and oranges. They contain much less sugar.
2. Increase your consumption of natural healthy fats
Many people still believe that eating fat will make them fat and that it will clog up their arteries. This is not true! Healthy fats, like olive oil, are key for good health and are an important part of the Mediterranean diet.
Olive oil helps lower your levels of "bad" cholesterol to promote good cardiovascular health and it is rich in phenols, which are potent antioxidants capable of lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage. A daily intake from one to four tablespoons seems to be beneficial. Look for labels that indicate your olive oil is “extra-virgin” and ideally cold-pressed.
In addition to olive oil, consume nuts and seeds daily. Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are especially nutritious, thanks to their omega-3 fatty acid content. Your body can't make omega-3s, so they need to make up part of your diet, and they're essential for healthy brain function as well as cardiovascular health. Add a handful of nuts and seeds to your salad or add flaxseeds or chia to your Greek yogurt or porridge. Shop for raw or dry-roasted nuts with no added salt or sugar, such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, as well as chia and flaxseeds.
3. Eat protein with every meal
To operate optimally, your body needs at least 50-60g of protein a day, every day. As you get older, you need more. Proteins are essential for the maintenance of good health as they are not only an important building block of bones, muscles, skin and blood but are also needed to repair your tissues, to make hormones and for the functioning of your immune system.
As our body cannot store proteins for later use - unlike fat and sugar that can be stored – it is important that you eat about a palm size portion of protein with every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Don’t bulk them up in one single meal as chances are you’ll run low on essential amino acids – the compounds that combine to make proteins - before your next refill.
The Mediterranean diet recommends eating wild-caught fish and seafood at least twice a week – preferably more. Shop for salmon, mackerel, sardines and rainbow trout - these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as high-quality protein.
When you eat meat, choose high quality pasture-raised poultry, which tends to contain less unhealthy saturated fat than red meat. Shop for skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breasts, and cook them using healthy methods, like roasting, baking, grilling, poaching and steaming.
Consume red meat only on special occasions or about once a week, and choose grass-fed organic options as they contain healthier fatty acids. Restrict your intake of processed meats such as sausages, bacon and salami, as they tend to contain high levels of salts, nitrates and other preservatives.
Legumes and beans are an excellent source of vegetable protein and are rich in fibre: consume as often as you can.
4. Eat plenty of green and coloured vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables form the basis of the Mediterranean diet, and you’ll need to eat 7 to 10 servings per day. These contain many essential vitamins and nutrients and are rich in fibre, which the ‘good’ microbes in your gut will benefit from.
Go for a rainbow of produce to meet your daily needs. Pick up dark green veggies like kale, broccoli, romaine lettuce, spinach and brussels sprouts, plus orange and red produce like mangoes, oranges, red peppers, carrots, strawberries and watermelon. Add more variety with white produce, like mushrooms, plus purple and blue fare like grapes, blueberries, blackberries, plums and eggplant.
When possible, prefer fruit and vegetables in season, locally sourced.
5. Use herbs and spices freely
Herbs and spices make food tastier while boosting your health. Indeed, modern science has now shown that many of them carry remarkable health benefits as they contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds. They also pack a potent punch of powerful flavour, which will make it significantly easier to cut back on less healthy ingredients like sugar and salt. Herbs and spices can wake up just about any food.
Oregano has long been the staple herb of Mediterranean cuisine for its wonderful flavour. Oregano is a natural antimicrobial and antifungal and its daily consumption might help to keep ‘bad’ microbes at bay in your gut.
A handful of freshly chopped aromatic basil can add a pop of colour as well as contributing to your daily nutrient intake as it is rich in vitamins and minerals.
And a teaspoon (or more) of cinnamon over your porridge or yoghurt with fresh berries may help to balance your blood glucose.
6. Enjoy red wine in moderation
Drink plenty of water and fluids, aiming to a minimum of 1.5 litres a day. You can include some coffee, black tea and fruit tea. A daily glass of red wine with a meal is acceptable, according to the Mediterranean diet.
Red wine is high in beneficial antioxidants, and it provides resveratrol, a phytonutrient that boosts cardiovascular health, promotes the health of your brain and might even prevent cancer. And moderate alcohol consumption also offers some health benefits - it lowers your chance of mortality from heart disease or stroke by up to 40 percent, explains the Harvard School of Public Health.
While the resveratrol content of wine varies depending on the grapes used, Pinot Noir and Merlot red wines are generally the best sources, notes the Linus Pauling Institute, with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zweigelt slightly lower in resveratrol.
Make sure you practice moderation when drinking red wine, capping your total alcohol intake to just one small measure each day.
7. Avoid snacking between meals or late-night grazing
Eat 3 well balanced main meals a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner - and leave at least 4-5 hours gaps in between. No snacking or grazing helps to train your endocrine system to balance blood sugar and it will also let your digestive system rest between meals, promoting digestive wellness.
Also, grazing stops fat burning therefore it is not helpful if you are trying to lose weight. If you must, snack on non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, cucumber or celery, or a small handful of nuts.
8. Have breakfast
Studies indicate that eating breakfast reduces the risk of obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and raised cholesterol. Do not skip it, unless you have decided to follow a structured program of Intermittent Fasting.
Though the quality of your breakfast is just as important as actually eating it, what you choose to put on your plate, and drink, will affect your blood sugar and impact your appetite for the rest of the day. So, breakfast really does have a bearing on your food choice for the rest of the day, even including what and when you choose to have your dinner.
Swap your cereals or toast for a meal rich in fibre, protein, and healthy fats as they stabilise blood sugar and insulin levels and make you feel full for longer.
This might sound difficult and time consuming, but there are some basic guidelines and simple additions you can easily make.
Let’s start with drinks as these too can be laden with sugar and can derail your blood glucose. Skip the fruit juice! Ok, so it may well be one of your 5 a day (by the way we are aiming to eat 7-10 portions of fruit & veg a day) but a 250 ml glass of orange juice contains almost 5 teaspoons of sugar and shop bought versions can be even worse. Eat a whole orange instead: its gut loving fibre will slow the sugar absorption.
When having your morning coffee, try to have it alongside your breakfast rather than on an empty stomach as this may send your stress hormones and blood glucose soaring!
Rotate: it’s so easy to get into a breakfast rut. Have a minimum of three easy breakfasts that you rotate, for example porridge with nuts & seeds, Greek plain yogurt with berries and smashed avocado on rye toast. And eggs & salmon or omelettes with spinach could be your breakfast at weekends, when you have more time. Rotating your breakfasts will help you meet your diverse nutritional needs and keep your taste buds happy.
Adhering to these 8 simple rules will help you futureproof your health. But remember the most important learning from the Mediterranean diet: it is not just a diet. It’s about developing a set of habits and making permanent changes to your lifestyle. And it’s about enjoying food with family and friends: conviviality is a key ingredient.
So relax, chew well and enjoy your food whilst chatting and connecting with your loved ones around the table.
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