What if there was a diet that not only celebrated life and living, but also extended life? A diet backed with solid evidence that it could reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, bowel, breast and other cancers, and – as an added bonus – also help you to maintain a healthy weight.
Well, this diet exists, and you’ve probably already heard of it – you just might need a refresher on its guiding principles so you can follow the fundamentals and reap the rewards.
In this diet, there is no measuring or weighing of ingredients, no strict rules or secret weapons. It celebrates food in its whole form (not its factory-made form) and puts the focus back on simple ingredients, seasonal produce and sensational taste. There is no deprivation in this diet. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: bold flavours, a feeling of generosity and eating for enjoyment.
This diet is the Mediterranean diet, and it’s based on the traditional eating patterns of Southern Greeks and Italians in the 1960s. Here are its eight guiding principles as well as the research behind them:
1. Focus on vegetables, fruit, legumes and wholegrains
In the Mediterranean diet, these foods are your major players, with a particular focus on veggies. Plant foods are filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, dietary fibre and anti-cancer compounds, and this diet puts them centre-stage. When you’re thinking about what to have for dinner, lunch and even breakfast, your thoughts should turn to the fresh food aisles of the markets or supermarkets and the colourful produce within them.
When it comes to wholegrains, Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella says, “An easy way to boost your intake is to clear out all the ‘white products’ from your pantry and replace them with wholegrain alternatives. This means swapping white rice for brown rice, white pasta for wholemeal pasta, white bread for wholegrain.” One large study highlights that eating wholegrains could be the key to a longer and healthier life because eating them was associated with lower total mortality rates and lower cardiovascular disease-related deaths.
2. For the love of olive oil (and other healthy fats)
Olive oil is the lifeblood of the Mediterranean diet, bringing food to life with its silky shine and fruity taste, but also its rich reserve of antioxidants and heart-healthy fats. This wonder-oil is used liberally in the kitchen, leaving little room for the saturated or inflammatory fats that dominate our current-day diets and processed foods (canola, sunflower seed, palm, soybean and other vegetable oils).
Nuts and seeds also boost the healthy fat intake in this diet, making you feel fuller for longer and potentially adding years to your life: research has found that eating a daily serving of nuts (30g, which is roughly a handful) reduces your risk of premature death by 27%. Walnuts in particular have been found to be a key component of the Mediterranean diet.
Nuts and seeds also add a wonderful crunch factor – try green beans with walnuts and feta, roasted carrots with toasted almonds, figs with natural yoghurt and sunflower seeds, or steamed broccoli with lemon, olive oil and sesame seeds. Remember, when it comes to oils, nuts and seeds, fresh is best. Also, choose an olive oil that is cold pressed and extra virgin, as this is the least processed and healthiest.
3. Don’t be shy with oregano, garlic, basil, thyme, rosemary, sage
In the Mediterranean diet, traditional Italian and Greek herbs are used in great abundance to heighten the flavour of foods. Not only are they another key source of antioxidants, research has found they hold many other medicinal benefits: oregano is antiseptic and can fight infections; garlic is antibacterial, feeds good gut bacteria and is great for cardiovascular health; rosemary protects brain health… the list goes on, but the lesson here – don’t be shy with these guys.
Try one of Sandra’s amazing herb and nut pesto combinations that are packed with flavour – there’s brazil nut and coriander, parsley and cashew or dill, almond and anchovy (and they all have raw garlic!).
4. Some meats in moderation and some on special occasions
When it comes to animal proteins, the Mediterranean diet includes moderate amounts of fish, seafood, chicken and eggs. Red meat, while included in the diet, is only eaten once or twice a month, or is saved for special occasions and celebrations.
5. The deal with dairy
Dairy plays a key role in the Mediterranean diet; however, rather than using lashings of fresh milk and cream, dairy is used in moderation and often in fermented forms to supplement and enhance fruits and vegetables.
Brined white cheeses such as feta have concentrated flavours and can add an extra dimension to many dishes. Yoghurt is also beneficial, both as a calcium-rich source for bone health, but also for its live cultures that aid gut health. The Mediterranean diet also features many cow milk alternatives, such as sheep and goat’s milk, or a combination of both.
6. Red wine rules
Now for something you’ve all been waiting for: red wine! The trick with this step is to abide by its two rules – drink with your meals, and only drink in moderation. The guidelines from the American Institute of Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund recommend no more than one standard drink per day for women.
7. Local seasonal fresh produce
Eating fresh, locally grown food by the seasons makes sense on so many levels. It’s often cheaper, fresher, more nutritious, better for the environment and benefits your community. Even though winter is approaching, there are lots of delicious seasonal options. Here are some of the vegetables in season for the next few months: broccoli, brussels sprouts, silverbeet, cauliflower and fennel.
8. A table of family and friends
Sandra’s parents are both from the Mediterranean region of Southern Italy and, from an early age, Sandra experienced the importance of mealtimes being enjoyable and social. “I grew up in a family of seven and the evening meal was the time that we all sat down together and talked about our day (no TV allowed!). We always had friends join in, too. Not only was the food reflective of a ‘peasant’ southern Italian table with a big focus on vegetables from the garden, but the importance of family time was unforgettable. Most meals were complemented with a simple green salad, dressed with olive oil and (often homemade) vinegar, and finished with fresh fruit,” says Sandra.
We’re sneaking in a number nine here because, technically, exercise isn’t a dietary factor. However, the Mediterranean population of the 1960s was physically active and often worked in the open air – researchers agree that this is an important component of the diet’s success.
Not surprisingly, Sandra’s collection of recipes in the Jean Hailes Kitchen follow these important principles. Some popular dishes are calamari al forno, sardines and green beans, cauliflower and cannellini bean soup and one-pot chicken and greens.