How to reap the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Gut Health Expert Nicola Moore explains why the Mediterranean diet and culture is a healthier - and more enjoyable - way to eat.
One of my favourite food cultures, because of the wealth of research that has been done looking at its health benefits, is the Mediterranean diet. I also like it because it’s quite simple in essence, and doesn’t play into the ‘you should avoid X’ trap which can bring so much confusion. Instead, The Mediterranean Diet encourages the celebration of food, and encompasses more than the food on the plate. In its truest sense, according to the World Health Organisation, the Mediterranean diet places value on the connectedness of eating; enjoying food as a social event, and placing value on the positive emotions that come from eating meals with friends and family.
If you’re looking to ‘eat Mediterranean’ you’ll find wonderful diversity in cultures available to inspire you. From Portugal, Spain, Italy and France through to Turkey, Greece, Tunisia and Morocco. Each country on the Mediterranean provides a wide variety of whole foods, made delicious by their use of herbs, spices, olive oil, love and passion.
But why exactly does the Mediterranean diet appear to be so good for health? Well, one interesting consideration is the positive impact this approach to eating has on gut health. The gut and its microbiome are now widely regarded as major players in whole body health and disease prevention, and when assessed, the Mediterranean diet appears to be beneficial for promoting good diversity of bacteria and supporting beneficial species such as lactobacillus and bifido bacteria. It also promotes the gut-based production of beneficial short-chain-fatty-acids, responsible for helping to keep our immune systems balanced, and linked to managing our mood.
It is likely to be the variety of foods enjoyed in this traditional diet, with its emphasis on local produce and seasonal eating, that is behind some of its gut-related health benefits. In addition, the use of unpasteurised dairy products, and natural methods for preserving foods such as pickling and fermenting prove supportive because of their probiotic nature.
One of the biggest hitters for health when it comes to the traditional Mediterranean diet is its jewel in the crown, olive oil. When you look at the benefits of olive oil it’s quite staggering. And again, one of its major pathways for helping us to be healthy links to its influence on gut health and microbial diversity. It appears to help reduce levels of unhelpful bacteria, while promoting good levels of the beneficial species, thanks to special plant chemicals in contains called polyphenols.
The traditional Mediterranean diet allows for a wonderful, wide range of foods, which is one of its major benefits. There are plenty of colourful, tasty and vibrant options to choose from, with a strong emphasis on foods from the plant kingdom. Enjoy vegetables, salad items, olive oil, nuts, seeds, pulses, beans, leagues, whole-grains, fruit, herbs, and spices. These foods contain a breadth of different fibres and plant chemicals, including polyphenols, that are anti-inflammatory, supportive of our microbiomes, and helpful for the important detoxification processes that our cells need to perform.
Finally, foods from the animal kingdom such as meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy, that also make up a large proportion of the Mediterranean diet, provide really good sources of protein and natural fats that make this approach to eating filling and satisfying as well as highly nutritious.
Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet includes a balanced mix and variety of all of these foods over the course of a week, month, and year. It’s about the consistency of enjoying good food over time, which of course then allows for flexibility. And enjoyment really is a key word here. The mindful element; taking in the colour and freshness of these wonderful foods, savouring the seasonings, herbs and spices used, and being thankful for having access to natural, whole-foods is incredibly helpful, not just for the overall consistency of eating in a Mediterranean way, but also to really get the most from the health benefits it provides.
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Nicola Moore, Nutritionist
Nicola Moore spent the last 20+ years in the sector of nutrition and lifestyle medicine as a forward-thinking nutritionist and held the role of a senior academic at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) for over 12 years, and overall Head of Clinics for 4 years.