Mediterranean diet - vital and healthy
The Mediterranean diet is a diet with well-documented preventive properties based on long-term studies on big human populations, preventing the development of cardiovascular diseases, including arteriosclerosis and hypertension. It is characterised by a high content of:
- unprocessed wholemeal cereal products with a low glycemic index,
- seeds, including legume seeds and nuts,
- fruit and vegetables,
- fish, particularly sea fish and
- olive oil as added fat.
The Mediterranean diet cuts down on red meat and salt (the latter replaced by seasonings), milk and dairy products, which are mostly consumed in the form of yogurt and cheese, as well as eggs, whose weekly intake should be reduced to four. Drinking alcohol (red wine) with a meal is not prohibited.
In the beginning of the 20th century the Mediterranean diet became a focus of interest for a number of research centre worldwide and was recognised as the most important diet, having a significant impact on reducing the risk of deaths due to strokes and heart attacks. As far as the diet’s nutritional value is concerned, it is distinguished by a low content of saturated acids and a high content of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids as well as a high content of fibre and natural antioxidants.
And everything started in 1956 with the Seven Countries Study, which covered over 12,770 men from 16 populations in 7 countries worldwide: Japan, Greece, former Yugoslavia, Italy, Netherlands, US and Finland. The analysis of the results of the abovementioned and later studies proved a close relation between blood cholesterol levels and the frequency of ischemic heart disease. The higher the consumption of saturated fatty acids in a given diet was, the higher cholesterol levels in the blood of the country’s or region’s inhabitants and the higher number of deaths were recorded. In Greece and Italy, where the consumption of saturated fatty acids was low and people used big amounts of olive oil, heart attacks were rare. Unlike the Mediterranean countries and Japan, in Finland, the US and Netherlands with their high animal fat consumption levels the number of deaths from heart attacks was the highest. The studies’ findings suggested a protective role of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which was confirmed in later studies leaving no doubts about it. The human body cannot synthesise those fats on its own, so they need to be provided with a diet.
The term Mediterranean diet also describes eating habits prevailing on Crete, in continental Greece and southern Italy in early 19060s. Today only Crete is trying to resist unfavourable changes in dietary patterns and an increasingly less active lifestyle of new generations. Eating habits evolve causing some undesirable phenomena and a healthy diet ceases to be itself in the full meaning of the term. Notwithstanding the changes that can hardly instil optimism regarding eating patterns of inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries, the region’s diet remains an antidote for a spreading plague of cardiovascular diseases, which has already reached all continents.
Following analyses of foods comprising the Mediterranean diet it was proved that what matters a lot in the prevention of arteriosclerosis and heart diseases is - apart from the type of fatty acids consumed - the presence of antioxidants, found essentially in fruits, vegetables, olive oil and red wine.
New research findings stress the importance of Mediterranean foods as a healthy diet not only in the prevention of arteriosclerosis and heart diseases, but also cancers, obesity, diabetes and old age diseases. Malignant tumours occur less frequently in Mediterranean countries than in northern Europe, which is explained by a higher consumption of plant-sourced products, including fruits and vegetables containing antioxidants – ß-carotene, vitamin E, C and flavonoids. Those substances protect cells of internal organs from the damaging impact of free radicals, conducive to the development of cancer diseases. Plant products also contain fibre, which impacts the large intestine’s microflora and pH of its contents, thus also halting the development of cancer cells in this organ.
In order to stay in great physical and mental shape throughout your life, no matter at what stage you are at the moment, it is good to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your daily menu. Following it does not necessarily mean having to buy only products coming from the Mediterranean region. You just need to choose products available in Poland that contain the right nutritional ingredients, playing the same role in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases as those found in foods produced in a warm sea climate.
Cereal products are the basis of a healthy diet modelled on the Mediterranean diet. They should include a high proportion of dark bread made from wholemeal flour, coarse grits, oat, barley and rye flakes, brown rice and pasta and natural muesli made without the addition of sugar. There is also plenty of fruit and vegetables rich in antioxidants in this diet. A wide range of such products is also available in the Polish market. Fruit and vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants, providing sizeable amounts of ß-carotene – carrots, tomatoes, pumpkins, apricots and peaches; vitamin C – cabbage, spinach, parsley leaves, blackcurrants, strawberries; and vitamin E – peppers, green vegetables, apricots, blueberries. In winter, when access to some fruit and vegetables gets difficult, you should make use of equally valuable frozen products. Being a healthy diet, it is also characterised by a high proportion of dishes based on legumes, which unfortunately do not have many fans in Poland and do not play an important role in the Polish culinary tradition, although soy, lentils and chickpeas are becoming more popular now. A habit from the Mediterranean cuisine that would be good to borrow is making salads with (or enriching them with) cooked or stewed seeds of those plants. Bean or soy pastes can be a great addition to bread as well. There are also a lot of dishes to which nuts and almonds, available all year long, can be added. They can also be treated as a snack and eaten between main meals.
The Mediterranean diet contains a lot of unsaturated fatty acids and little of saturated ones. If we want to follow it, we should definitely give up eating ready bakery and pastry products, such as cakes, pies and biscuits, creams, gateaux, milk chocolate, fast food meals, as well as pork chops, hock and lard, full-fat cheese and milk. You should also cut down on frying dishes and obligatorily replace so-called added animal fat with olive oil and rape oil, justly nicknamed “the gold of the North". Both fats contain monounsaturated fatty acids rich in vitamin E and do not raise “bad” cholesterol levels. Moreover, rape oil is a source of α-linolenic acid from the Ω-3 acid family, lowering triglyceride levels and thus preventing heart ischemic disease caused by arteriosclerosis. Acids from the Ω-3 family are also found in fish, especially fatty ones, the consumption of which is still very low despite wide market availability.
The Mediterranean diet is also poultry and meat prepared with a generous dose of vegetables. Such dishes are easy and quick to prepare and can successfully replace Polish pork chops fried in lard. Menus modelled on this diet would not be complete without dairy products, including low-fat yogurts, whose range in the Polish market is very wide and continues to expand.
Following a healthy diet does not mean having to visit restaurants specialising in Mediterranean cuisine or buying ready dishes and expensive Italian, Greek, French or Spanish products. What you need is a slight change of your eating habits, choosing suitable domestic raw foods and products, good recipes and a conviction that caring about your future good health is worthwhile. It should be highlighted here that it is not about following another fashionable diet for some time, but a way to lead a healthy life in line with recommendations of the world’s top research centres and organizations dealing with the impact of eating patterns on the human body.