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Healthy eating and the Mediterranean diet

Healthy eating and the Mediterranean diet

by Alan King 01 October 2012

We've all heard of the Atkins diet and the F plan diet and even more faddy diets make their way onto the market, promising weight loss. Alan King attended a seminar by the Italian Trade Commission extolling the virtues of The Mediterranean Diet and its benefits to us. Discover what he learnt.

A former Civil Servant, Alan King, actually started his working life as a trainee chef at The Ritz hotel, he's had a lifelong interest in food.

In recent months the Italian Trade commission have held a series of events focusing on the Mediterranean diet and its potential benefits to us all; young, old, the fit and not so fit. At a recent seminar, the Commission invited a panel consisting of Valentina Harris, author of 40 Italian recipe books, seven Michelin star sprinkled chef Bruno Barbieri, and Jane Griffith, a dietician who has worked with British national sports teams over her career, moderated by journalist Andy Lynes, to discuss the benefits of the diet.

So, firstly, what is the Mediterranean diet? Well, for a start, it’s nothing like the ‘F plan Diet’ or the ‘Grapefruit Diet’ or any other faddy dietary plan that promises you guaranteed weight loss over a given number of weeks. These limited focus diets may work in the short term – and be incredibly boring while you’re following them, but when you return to your ‘normal’ eating style or pattern the weight inevitably comes back. The Mediterranean diet is a particularly interesting phenomenon which has developed naturally in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco, as well as the south of France. Of course there are variations in the style of cuisine and culture in all these countries, but there is a common thread that runs through their diet and it’s this which makes up the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is considered by UNESCO as the best diet for a healthy lifestyle and has been shown in areas where it’s commonly followed to lead to lower cholesterol levels, reduced incidence of stroke and heart disease and thus leading to longer healthier lives. The Mediterranean diet is more of a ‘dietary lifestyle’ than a ‘diet’. In its most simplistic form, it’s a diet that contains a good mix of carbohydrates, pasta, bread, grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables. If you drew a pyramid with three sections bisecting it horizontally and in the top section included sugars and sugary items, animal fats, red meats, cured meats, and dairy products; these items should make up only a small part of your diet. The middle section of the pyramid would contain fish, poultry and eggs; these are items can be eaten more frequently but still in moderation. The lower much larger section should contain fruit, vegetables, grains, cereals, pasta and olive oil, these items should be the staples in your diet, which you should eat most of.

The Mediterranean diet is considered by UNESCO as the best diet for a healthy lifestyle.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on seasonal vegetables and where possible local produce. If managed well, a diet that follows the broad principles of the Mediterranean diet, together with some moderate exercise should result in healthier bodies and weight loss in those who are overweight. All three panellists underlined the importance of a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in your daily diet, aiming for more than just ‘five a day’, Jane adding that they’re high in antioxidants which consume harmful free radicals in the bloodstream. Both Valentina and Bruno also expressed the importance of culture and eating as a family unit, as well as including a small glass or two of red wine at the main meal, which is good news for most of us!

Bruno was passionate about pasta – that made with durum wheat and bronze die cut is best in his view. He said the pasta made in Gragnano is particularly renowned for its excellent quality and this, in part, is due to the water in the region being low in calcium. Gragnano pasta is known in Italy as ‘white gold’ apparently. Whole wheat pasta is also excellent for your diet. Bruno stressed the importance of pasta being cooked correctly, ensuring that it's al dente when served as it's then easier to digest. When overcooked, apart from the flavour being reduced, the pasta becomes starchier, is less easily digested and leads to raised blood sugar levels. Bruno’s passion also extended to olive oil, telling us that cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is the best to use in dressings and in recipes, as well as a cooking agent – I’m told it has a much higher burn point than most other oils. In seasoning food, garlic, herbs and spices are very important in the Mediterranean diet as these add flavour without the need to add salt to food.

 

Other suggestions from the panellists were, when buying red meat, aim for higher quality cuts that are leaner, if you’re buying it less often you can afford to pay a little more for it, and a lower fat content is far better for you. If you need to snack during the day, eat seeds, fruit and nuts and finally, honey is a much healthier sweetening agent than sugar, so use this where you can.

I’m someone who, for health reasons, lost in excess of 50lb over an 18-month period, I achieved this through making small dietary adjustments. Those that I made, to lose that weight and maintain the loss for more than ten years now, are very close to my having unknowingly adopted something very close to the Mediterranean diet. I can see that this type of dietary regime is a broad blueprint for a healthier life.

There’s a lot on the internet about the Mediterranean diet and it’s well worth looking around to get ideas about what you might eat as well as for recipes that work within the Mediterranean diet. It worked for me, even though I’m not obsessive about it, and it should work for you.

 
 

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