What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?

Perhaps you are reading this while in lockdown, and perhaps, just like me, you sometimes dream of holidays by the Mediterranean Sea… In my dreams, there are not only the blissful beaches bathed with crystal clear water, there is also the Mediterranean food: juicy tomatoes, plump aubergines, oriental meze, pasta of all shapes, a board of cheese and cured meat, and a glass of red wine. So much goodness!

And so many health benefits! The Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, improved cognitive health, positively impacts the immune function and inflammatory responses. What’s not to like?

Many studies have investigated the eating habits of populations living around the “Grande bleue” (Big blue sea) as we call her in France. Other studies have examined the effects of “Mediterranean diets” on health, in other populations. Truth is there are as many diets around the Mediterranean as there are countries, and the concept of « Mediterranean Diet » was invented in the 80’s in the US. Can we nevertheless draw a definition, or a description, of the celebrated Mediterranean diet?

Olive oil, a piacere!

One characteristic of the Mediterranean Diet resides in the extensive use of locally produced extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Olive oil is very rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA, 73%), contains anti-inflammatory antioxidants and vitamin E (alpha tocopherol). Because it is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet and presents such a beneficial profile, olive oil is a key contributor to the healthy aspects of the Mediterranean diet.

Plenty of fruit and vegetables, nuts and pulses/legumes, a moderate protein intake

Traditional cuisine from countries around the Mediterranean include a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, from breakfast to dinner. Traditionally, cereals were often consumed wholegrain, therefore with an increased nutrient density. This allows a high content in fibre: on average, studies found that the Mediterranean Diet provides 30 to 35g of fibre per day.

Plant foods are also rich sources of folate, calcium, glutathione, antioxidants, vitamins E and C and minerals. Tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs (oregano, mint, rosemary, parsley and dill) contain bio-protective nutrients such as carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols (antioxidants) and are widely used for cooking.

Nuts, consumed as a snack of incorporated in dishes bring additional healthy fats, vitamin E, magnesium, selenium and polyphenols. They contribute to maintain a healthy lipid profile.

Roughly 15% of the total energy intake comes from proteins. Red meat and eggs are consumed in small amounts and with low frequency; seafood intake varies, with moderate amounts of fish. Dairy foods are often in the form of cheese.

All minimally processed

Whatever the macronutrient balance, the “Mediterranean diet” is characterised by minimal processing of food items. This allows a maximum nutrient density.

In season: April

Spring is finally here! A weird Spring for sure, for many of us are quarantined because of coronavirus. While we are social distancing, nature is bursting and brings delicious fruit and vegetables to our table.

Sourcing fresh fruit and vegetables can be tricky these days. Remember that tinned and frozen are valid alternatives. Frozen and tinned fruit and veg can be cheaper than fresh, they are usually picked at when they are full-grown and mature meaning a higher content in micronutrients.

To finish, please shop sensibly: do not stockpile yet do not go out too often, and rinse your fresh fruit and veg carefully.

Fruits

Apples and pears are still in season in April, so are kiwis, oranges, pomelo, lemons and limes. You may find the first local varieties of strawberries in your shop as well as rhubarb. Ideal to bake a pie or crumble!

Vegetables

As you can see above, caulis and cabbage, beetroots are still in season. Versatile cucumber and carrots too, and you may find the first asparagus. Leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach are a good means to add vitamins and minerals to your plate.

Whether you have them fresh, tinned or frozen, enjoy your fruit and veg!

In season: February

Some of us may start to feel bored with winter food (me!), but look, the days are getting longer and here and there hide the first signs of Spring.
Plus, February is the peak season for delicious fruits and vegetables!

seasonal fruit veg february
http://angelgreens.co.uk/

Vegetables

Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, celeriac, kale, leeks, parsnips, potatoes, shallots, swedes, turnips, wild mushrooms, cabbage, winter squash…

End of season: beetroot and celery

Beginning of season: rhubarb

Fruits

Apples, pears, clementines, lemon, oranges, kiwis, passion fruit, pomegranate

Fish and seafood

Haddock, mussels, oysters, salmon

Find out more

Angel Green is a not-for-profit social enterprise, providing organic vegetables directly from local farms to Islington and King’s Cross residents and those working in the area.

Portion sizes and food groups – adults

Most of us don’t measure portion sizes when we eat, we serve ourselves according to our appetite, liking or disliking of available food, time, servings of ready made meals etc. That’s absolutely fine, and I certainly don’t support weighing food or counting calories, however I believe that a refresh of portion sizes of each food group could be a helpful reminder for all of us.

Remember that having a healthy diet is a matter of balance over a week, not a meal.

Vegetables and Fruits

Yes, I put vegetables first because they are packed with so many nutrients and are so versatile, I am a big fan. Anyway, both vegetables and fruits are amazing sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibres, which I will detail in another article. Meanwhile this paper gives you a precise idea of the health benefits.

The common recommendation is to have at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, preferably at least 3 veg and 2 fruits. However a recent study by Imperial College concluded that the more of you have, the better: the health effects of fruit and veg were greater with an intake of at least 10 portions per day!

Aim at a third to half of your meal/diet made up by fruit and vegetables.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are found in starchy foods like potatoes (which don’t count as veg), cereals (wheat, oats, buckwheat, tapioca…), rice. It is important to vary the sources of carbohydrates as they don’t provide the same amino acids: try wheat, corn or buckwheat pasta, rice in various forms and varieties, rye bread etc.

Carbohydrates should account for roughly a third of your diet. They provide energy, proteins, fibres when you choose them wholegrain.

A typical serving of raw/uncooked as a main is a handful to a palm of pasta (80-100g), a handful of rice (50-60g), 3 tablespoons of breakfast cereals (30-40g).

Tip: weigh your breakfast cereal serving once for all in your breakfast bowl, make a mental note of it and never think about it again. Likewise you can weigh your or your family’s serving of raw pasta/rice/quinoa, visualise it in a plate/serving dish/your hand.

Free-sugar are carbohydrates, they provide energy and no other nutrients. Adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day (roughly 7 sugar cubes)

Proteins

Proteins come from animal or plant food. We only need 0.5 to 0.8g of protein per kilo each day, for a 70g adult this is 35 to 56g per day. Actually, with our Western diets, it is almost impossible not to meet our daily requirements for proteins, even if you are vegetarian or vegan.

For example, a 100g serving of raw pasta will provide you with 5g of proteins, 2 eggs with 12g, a serving of lentils (50g raw) is 5g etc. Over a day, it quickly adds up to 40-50g of proteins!

Portion sizes can be estimated as follows:
animal proteins: meat: one portion of meat = a deck of cards, fish = palm of hand, 2 eggs
plant proteins: 4 tablespoons of lentils/beans/meat alternative

Dairy and dairy alternatives

There is a growing (and interesting) controversy on dairy products, which I will not tackle here. Dairy and dairy alternative provide fats, proteins, minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and iodine and vitamins such as A, D, B2, B12.

A typical portion of dairy drink is a glass (200ml), a pot for yogurt (125g), and for cheese a matchbox (30g).

Fats

Fats are essential in a balanced diet, our cells membrane is made of fat and cholesterol, so are some hormones, our brain etc. They are vectors for fat soluble vitamins A, D, E.

Fats are found in most protein foods and added when cooking or serving. The NHS recommends to keep the total daily fat intake under 70g for adults.

Oily fish (trout, salmon, mackerel, sardines ) provide essential fatty acids, the omega-3. It is recommended to have at least 1 portion = palm of hand of oily fish per week.
Likewise, nuts provide mono-unsaturated fats food for your heart, and omega-6. One portion = half a handful per day is advisable.

Generally speaking, one portion of fat (oil, butter, spread) is a fingertip = a teaspoon = 5g.

Avoid trans-fat, prefer healthier and stable fats for cooking such as olive oil and butter.