Mediterranean diet: what you didn’t know

Mediterranean diet: what you didn’t know
Image: @ana.zilhao

You are not alone in thinking that a Mediterranean diet stands for piles of fruit, olive oil and wine cellars. Indeed, there is some truth to it, but it is only the tip of an iceberg.

It is unclear how this otherwise well documented diet has boiled down to a simplified worship of olive oil in our minds. If you are one of those people that associate the Mediterranean diet with a bowl of Greek salad and a glass of dry red wine, it is time to turn your world upside down and break the truth about one of the best diets in the world.

More than just food

Despite its evident “diet” tag, there is more to this nutritional system than food. Movement as well as strong family and friendship ties are at the heart of it. It is therefore less to do with what is on your plate and more about the mood you are in when you sit at the table and the amount of movement in your day. It would perhaps be more accurate to refer to it as a Mediterranean lifestyle altogether.

It is things like a pleasant lunch get together that flows effortlessly into dinner or a spontaneous trek across town for a perfect breakfast loaf that define the way of life for many people living in Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco. Many dietologists and Instagram influencers would disapprove of such calorific pursuits. However, scientific studies prove otherwise.

These studies demonstrate the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in preventing cardio-vascular issues, diabetes, age-related changes in the brain and weight gain. Feasting with your family and friends with moderate exercise seems to be the key to staying young and healthy. And there is no physical overexertion in sight: pottering around gets priority over marathon training, while counting your calories and carbs is certainly not on the cards here.

Truth about the Mediterranean diet
Image: @ana.zilhao

Natural movement

A few centuries ago, the Mediterranean was largely the domain of shepherds and peasants. Some Greek and Italian islands have managed to maintain this old way of life to this day, while becoming world leaders as regions of longevity. The physical activity of these people was formed around such basic practical tasks as attending to livestock in their miles’ long routes, gardening and doing housework. These are the essential foundations of the Mediterranean approach to fitness which have made it into the 21st century as well.

Saying ‘yes’ to a walk on either side of a meal, dancing, cycling no matter the weather, playing carefree with kids and outdoor work. And saying ‘no’ to being a couch potato glued to a TV with a slice of pizza and an occasional intense gym session that you definitely are not looking forward to. Pleasure is the guiding principle here that can be applied to everything, not just mealtimes.

A Mediterranean lifestyle is not demanding that its followers track their step count or stick to a strict number of meals a day, and this is a huge advantage of it. The one thing it does require though is dedication to moderate activity that would make you break a light sweat and increase your heartrate for around thirty minutes per day. Strength training a few times a week is a bonus, especially when it comes to youngsters over fifty who need to be more vigilant with their muscle mass loss.

Oil isn’t everything

One of the most persistent stereotypes when it comes to a Mediterranean diet is olive oil. Anecdotal sources nudge us to use this “liquid gold” generously in every meal to secure a long and happy life. However, a standard Mediterranean diet pyramid does not in fact put olive oil on any sort of pedestal. In fact, it is listed as part of a rather broad single category of such equally beneficial foods as whole wheats, fruits and vegetables, beans as well as herbs and spices.

There is not a single case study that demonstrates a direct correlation between increased consumption of extra virgin olive oil and improved health. If you consider yourself a follower of the Mediterranean lifestyle, next time you reach for that olive oil, remember that a tablespoon of the good stuff is perfectly sufficient in delivering your daily required dose of this type of fat.

One piece of advice here is to opt for first cold pressed olive oil - an excellent pairing for fresh salad leaves and vegetables. According to UK studies, salads with an olive oil dressing benefit the cellular health of their consumers due to their combination of polysaturated fats and vegetable nitrates and nitrites. The nitro acids produced as a result are known to reduce inflammatory processes in the body.

Egg on Thursdays, meat in April

Those that like to suffer in the name of losing weight are typically not fans of the Mediterranean diet with its lack of strict categories of “good” and “bad” foods and clear dietary indications. It all sounds like a bunch of vague recommendations. Indeed the world will not end with that unaccounted-for glass of wine that you snuck in this week. However, there is a distinct routine to it.

Plant foods are to be consumed daily and practically without any limitations. This includes wheats, savoury bread, beans and nuts, fruit and vegetables, olive oil and spices. Fish and seafood are recommended several times a week. Eggs, cheese, fermented dairy products, poultry and sweets are advised once or twice a week. Portion sizes do matter here, recommended at 200 g per week. Last but not least, is the matter of red meat. In the Mediterranean this is the only food consumed roughly once a month on a special occasion, making everyone better off.

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