The Mediterranean diet is widely regarded as one of the most healthy in the world. This is well documented but there’s nothing like personal experience to shine the light. Having just returned from a trip to Andalucia feeling energised, healthy and un-bloated, despite working hard while I was there, I realise that a lot of my improved wellbeing could be attributed, quite simply, to what I was eating. So why is the Mediterranean diet so good for us and what can we do to incorporate its benefits into our lives back home?
The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruit, fish, pulses and healthy fats such as olive oil. What is more, food is generally cooked at home from fresh using produce that has been sourced from local suppliers. This means that it is free from unnecessary additives and excessive processing. You only need to visit the wonderful local markets to see the amazing array of produce on offer, not perfectly formed or unblemished but fresh and vibrant and delicious just as it is.
It’s also true that food takes on a very different role in Mediterranean households than it does in ours. Mealtimes are family times; a cross-generational opportunity to come together and a chance to savour what has been prepared. Food is so much more than simply fuel eaten mindlessly (and often limitlessly!) in front of the TV. It is no coincidence that obesity levels are much lower as a result.
Finding myself in a particularly remote part of Spain, I was struck by how far our two societies had moved apart. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I could not have imagined that life can be so relaxed and uncomplicated: shops open when they feel like it (…and leave a handwritten note to advise you when they don’t!), whole villages still close down for 3 hours every afternoon, and the biggest event is the weekly market when, for a few hours, everything comes alive and then just as quickly returns to the sleepy status quo. What a change from our chaotic London life when pretty much everything we want is on tap 24/7. Yet with it comes stress and its associated impact on our health.
All these things combined make for powerful results. Extensive research has shown that the Mediterranean diet, or perhaps more accurately lifestyle, reduces cholesterol more effectively that some medication, helps to prevent type 2 diabetes, heart disease and increases life expectancy significantly compared to those whose diet is higher in saturated fats found in red meat and butter.
With so much evidence in its favour, it makes sense to bring home as much Mediterranean inspiration as we can so that the benefits last way more than the limited time we are able to spend there. Here’s some simple things that could easily be introduced:
- Ditch the TV dinners! In our house, the chef loves TV and so we regularly find ourselves installed in front of it as we eat. My aim going forward is that we sit together if only for half an hour to enjoy the food he (!) has prepared.
- Cook fresh – with sufficient planning, it doesn’t have to be a laborious as it sounds. No matter how expensive or where they are bought from, ready meals and takeaways are full of hidden nasties and the goodness has been processed out.
- Olive oil: the holy grail. Living with a North African who liberally ladels home produced olive oil over everything he eats, I am regularly reminded that I should probably be eating more. Mix it with balsamic vinegar for quick and easy salad dressing, use it in mash or on bread instead of butter and bake Use good quality virgin olive oil. NB it is not recommended to use olive oil at high temperatures as it is unstable and turns into a harmful fat.
- Increase the vegetables – one thing that you can’t get too much of so add them in whenever you can.
- Seasonal produce, locally sourced – aim to buy from local farmers when you can and buy the things that are in season to avoid long transit times
- Packaging – avoid anything in plastic packaging where possible. Did you know that bags of salad leaves are filled with gas to keep them fresh for longer?!
- Stress – the more calm you can stay the healthier you will be so if you can’t beat them join them: take the ‘maniana’ approach from now on!