I know, most of us are convinced of the wonders of olive oil and even tomatoes; but did you know that cooking tomatoes in olive oil, yes as they do in the Med, significantly increases the antioxidants? The lovely phenols in the olive oil during the cooking process actually serve to increase our bodies ability to take up and use the lycopenes in the tomatoes.
The more I hear about the Med Diet, particularly in the face of the mounting evidence of its benefits, the more I look to bring it into to my own eating habits, but to be honest I didn't exactly know what the Med Diet on a practical level was.
The Med Diet is by no means a 'diet' in the usual sense (going without, punishment sort of thing), instead it's a lifestyle and way of enjoying food that is traditional to the countries that surround the Mediterranean. It's all about the consumption of full-flavoured meals, local food and wine in moderation with family and friends. Gotta love that!
What is the Med Diet? Just simply...
If you checked out the research a traditional Med Diet has the following characteristics:
So, instead of boring you with the evidence of it's benefits, we have a whole course coming out on that soon enough, I wanted to stun you with some of the wonders of this diet, with some of the 'wow' moments I have experienced in learning about the Med Diet.
Here goes... My top five, 'and that's why I love the Med Diet' points...
1. Cooking tomatoes in olive oil (virgin cold pressed of course) increases the uptake of polyphenols
Yep, those clever Greeks and Italians know that if you cook your tomatoes, which are rich in lovely antioxidant lycopenes with olive oil (rich in polyphenols) the phenols in the olive oil increase your bodies ability to take up and use the lycopenes. Yes, its all a bit sciencey. But what does this actually mean? Well the research in health suggests that the these lycopenes help to reduce inflammation and prevent damage to our cells. In other words, Lycopenes and polyphenols exert a strongly antioxidant effect in the body preventing the processes that are primarily involved in cardiovascular disease (CDV).
2. Tomato intake in the West = 1 slice... sooooo, but doesn't cut it!
Studies show that the average Med Diet has at least 1 whole tomato (106g), while we in the West tend to think of eating tomato as being ticked off by just one single slice (23g). Oh come on? You are joking right? Surely we eat more than that on average? No, sorry, the data from Australian Nutrition surveys is pretty clear.
So, if we think we are getting benefits from our lovely slice of tomato we probably are, but probably not to the extent we might envisage. To reflect a Med Diet eating habit just one of the areas we need to improve on is our tomato consumption. We know from studies that the Med Diet is most effective when all the known elements of it are in play. That is no single aspect of the Med Diet on it's own can be attributed with the amazing benefits to our heart and brain health or longevity. It's the combination of all of the ingredients (nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices, vegetables, 4:1 plant to animal intake, whole grains, fish and fruit) that exert the strongest effect.
3. Herbs are more than just for sprinkling
A true Med Diet incorporates lashings, well actually grams and grams of herbs (generally fresh from the land). Herbs such as thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, tarragon all over 500 mgGAE/100g. Say what? Sorry, GAE is gallic acid equivalents, a measure of antioxidants in foods. One study finding a 37%, yes 37% DECREASE in mortality from eating a Med Diet high in antioxidants and such compounds.
In other words what this all means is that herbs are VERY (note the caps) high in polyphenols. A typical Med Diet uses such herbs in bulk not just a 25g jar of dried and denatured plant (and that's just the non-herbs in the jar), it uses large quantities of fresh herbs. You could say that the dose is therapeutic as well as aromatic! Interestingly, herbs and spices have far more phenols than fruit. This is not to say that fruit is not a part of the Med Diet, it's still very much present.
4. High fat, but good fat!
Interestingly, one of the first major studies on the Med Diet by Ansel Keys in the 1950's was the Seven Countries Study. While the study concluded that the Med Diet consisted of 40% energy from fat and 95% of this fat is from olive oil, which is great for the heart, the message that was picked up and run with was that saturated fat appeared to be detrimental to our health. And, the next thing you know the whole 'low-fat' business was born. Of course we know now that this simplistic view is incorrect and that only certain saturated fats are implicated in heart disease. Still, the low-fat message was very much an unintended consequence of this early study.
The Med Diet is high fat, typically 44%, but the important thing to remember is that it is predominantly from... yes you guessed it unsaturated fat.
5. It's social
If we look at the Med Diet Pyramid it has some familiar bits and pieces to the standard healthy eating pyramids, but a number of things we don't see too often as well. The Med Diet has traditionally been used as a tool to assess diets, rather than as a diet to instill with clients. Consequently, we have data that shows where a person follows the Med Diet or increasingly mirrors it, significant improvements occur in, not just heart disease risk, but in preventing mental decline and overall mortality. Now that's not to be sniffed at! The Med Diet is more than just a diet tweaked for sales, it's an eating pattern that predates manufactured commercial diets, it's a way of life, a way of eating to create dietary diversity, of enjoying food, of being nourished so that you live a long, healthful and vital life.
Buon appetito people
Words by; Registered Nutritionist and Director of Cadence Health, Leanne Cooper
While you are waiting for the release of our next course on the Mediterranean Diet why not better understand food and nutrition with our Super Foods eCourse.
We all have a role to play in community health, the only question is how do we play this role? Through intelligent, evidence-based inquiry we can understand how to health coach to support others in taking on positive behaviour change.