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Diet & Nutrition

The Mediterranean Diet: Is this the healthiest diet ever?

We’ve all heard of the Mediterranean Diet – but what exactly is it and why could adopting it be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make?

By Nicky Pellegrino
What if there was a way of eating that was proven to be good for us no matter what our stage of life?
Old or young, it would keep us healthier, lower our risk of heart disease, protect against some cancers and diabetes, boost brain power, help women through pregnancy and the menopause, promote better sleep and even slow the ageing process so we'd be less likely to become frail in later life.
Wouldn't you want to know a lot more about it?
Well, there is such a thing, it's been around for centuries and has been studied since the 1960s. Known as the Mediterranean Diet, this is a traditional way of eating followed by the people of southern Italy, Greece and Spain.
It is a relatively simple, affordable and, most importantly, very delicious approach to better health and wellbeing.
"In terms of the science and research, there is overwhelming support for the Mediterranean style of eating and living," says Auckland nutritionist Jennifer Bowden, who is a big fan of this pathway to good health.
And unlike some modern eating plans, this isn't a joyless regime of rigid rules and banned foods that will leave you feeling hungry and deprived.
"The Mediterranean Diet is a loose one; you can choose the foods you like and tailor it to the way you enjoy eating," explains Jennifer.
The long-lived people from these regions were eating a plant-based diet long before it became trendy.
Fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes made up the bulk of their daily intake. Red meat was consumed in very sparse amounts – and when it did feature in dishes, it was often treated more as a flavouring than the main event. Chicken, fish and dairy were also eaten sparingly. And moderate amounts of red wine were enjoyed with meals.
The traditional Mediterranean Diet is a way of life rather than a weight-loss plan. It isn't only about nourishing your body with good food; how you treat it in other ways is vital, too.
The people first studied back in the 1960s were mostly farmers, shepherds and beekeepers; they lived on hilly land so their days were filled with exercise and activity. Mealtimes were leisurely, usually eaten slowly and in the company of family, and life in general was relatively calm so there was always time for rest and relaxation.
"It all comes as a package," says Jennifer.
"You can't just put some olive oil on your salad, eat a handful of nuts and carry on with your stressful life. For most of us nowadays, everything has to be instant. We're looking for a quick fix and we think that if we sort out our eating we'll be healthy, rather than taking a step back and reassessing our whole lifestyle."
Most eating plans with weight loss as a goal involve following strict rules, and for some dieters that feels rewarding as it can give a sense of control over an otherwise chaotic-seeming life.
"A lot of people are focused on weight loss," says Jennifer.
"There is pressure, especially on women, to look a certain way and fit in. But the Mediterranean lifestyle isn't about losing weight; it's about being in good health."
The Mediterranean Diet is arguably the most studied of all the various ways of eating. Evidence of its benefits keeps mounting and researchers are learning more about what foods are most valuable.
A key seems to be plenty of healthy unsaturated fats.
Recently in the UK there was a clinical trial involving more than 1000 pregnant women, all with metabolic risk factors including obesity and chronic high blood pressure.
Half the women followed a Mediterranean-style diet, which included a daily portion of nuts (mostly walnuts with some almonds and hazelnuts) and lots of extra virgin olive oil, fruit, vegetables, non-refined grains and legumes. There was a small to moderate intake of poultry and dairy, a low intake of red and processed meat, and an avoidance of sugar and fast food.
This group of women were found to have a 35 per cent lower risk of gestational diabetes and they gained less weight than the group that followed a standard pregnancy diet.
A healthy mother gives a baby a good start in life, but it is never too late to benefit from the traditional Mediterranean ways.
Italian researchers looked at people over the age of 65 and found they had a 25 per cent lower risk of death if they followed this style of eating.
Since living better is just as important as living longer, it is encouraging to learn that this way of life helps older people maintain muscle strength, activity and energy levels, plus there is evidence that it supports the ageing brain by reducing the risk of dementia.
Boosting your consumption of a single food – such as nuts or extra virgin olive oil – won't give the same protective health benefits as adopting the diet as a whole. However, experts have been tweaking the traditional plan.
Our need for calcium-rich foods to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis has led to the MedDairy diet, which includes several servings of dairy a day (low-fat yoghurt rather than butter and cream). South Australian researchers showed that this has benefits for cardiovascular health as well as mood and brain health.
Eating those plant-rich meals mindfully (rather than in front of the TV or while scrolling on a screen) and enjoying the conversation of family and friends is all part of the deal.
Another clue to the diet's success at preventing heart disease, experts believe, is that the traditional portion size was not large.
The Mediterranean Diet is not necessarily the only way of eating that's good for you, but it may well be the healthiest – this year it was ranked the number-one diet by the US News & World Report. And perhaps best of all, rather than self-denial, the philosophy is that eating should be pleasurable.
"When I coach my clients I have a really big focus on enjoying food. If it is satisfying and you get joy from it then you tend to eat less and feel better," says Jennifer.

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