With so many diets out there claiming to be the best and so many diet books out there promoting diets such as Paleo, 5:2, Alkaline and Low carb to name but a few, it can be hard to know what is healthy and what is not. Is it even important to follow a diet? or just to eat healthily and if so, what does healthy eating even look like? It can be one thing to one person and something completely different to another. Which is why being specific about a 'diet' can often be beneficial.
I must say I don't often promote 'dieting'. Mainly as when someone partakes in a diet, they are changing the way they eat for a limited period of time. Instead, I promote healthy eating in every day life. With the aim to alter one's diet slowly, by making small, sustainable changes, ideally that are hardly noticeable. Otherwise eating habits can quickly revert back to what they normally were pre diet and weight gain returns to what it was, plus more!
Does this sound like a radical change? No. It isn't. Will you lose weight dramatically, well hopefully not. Research states that slow weight loss is preferable and more likely to stay off. Yet, for some, healthy eating may well be radical change and that is why for some people using a diet plan may well be the best thing for them.
So what is the best diet, and does it even exist?
There are mountains of research promoting the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, much more so than many of the current diets that are being promoted. If I had to label the type of diet that I do promote, it would be Mediterranean.
You may be thinking, sure lots of fish and salad, days spent basking in the sunshine, all of that fresh sea air - of course it is good for you! But the reality may be that sitting in your basement flat in Clapham, you feel a world away from this way of living.
So what exactly is the Mediterranean Diet? and what makes it so good for you? The next three paragraphs outline the diet and discuss a few of the well evidenced based and researched benefits... so, here's the Science!
A traditional Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and unprocessed cereals, low consumption of meat and moderate consumption of fish and alcohol, with wine typically taken with meals (Trichopoulou et al., 2014). Total fat may be moderate to high (30-40%) yet the ratio of beneficial monounsaturated fats to saturated fats is high, mainly due to the use of extra virgin olive oil (Trichopoulou et al., 2014). The Mediterranean diet has low intake of highly processed 'western' foods, such as refined carbohydrates, with simple carbohydrates increasing the metabolically undesirable glycemic load and containing the 'good' HDL cholesterol (Trichopoulou et al., 2014).
Apart from the high nutritional content that a variety of vegetables and fruit provides including antioxidants and flavanols, the phenolic compounds are healthy protectors in the human diet and thought to contribute to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet (De la Torre-Robles et al., 2014). Along side these phenolic compounds, is oleocanthal, found in olive oil which has emerged as a potential therapeutic molecule showing the ability to reduce inflammation, cancers and neurodegenerative disease (Scotch et al., 2014).
It has been suggested that following a Mediterranean diet can reduce mortality, especially death rates due to coronary heart disease (Panagiotakos et al., 2004). With the Mediterranean diet being protective against chronic inflammation, cancer, diabetes, obesity, pulmonary diseases and cognition disorders (Gotsis et al., 2014; Salas-Salvadó, Guasch-Ferré, Bulló, & Sabaté, 2014).
Sounds good? but how easy is this diet to follow?
Well, when you think of Mediterranean food you may think of Italian food, or Greek food. Pizza, pasta, olives, bread, cheese, calamari and fried seafood: how does this all fit into the diet?
Well it does, all in moderation. A Mediterranean diet is less of a diet and more of a way of life. You can allow yourself treats, but overall it is eating a certain way which will lead to the health benefits discussed above.
You can quite easily start to make changes to your diet that align more with the Mediterranean way of eating. Firstly, using extra virgin olive oil as your oil of choice. Choosing monounsaturated fats such as an olive based spread over butter, which is a saturated fat. Ensuring you cook using fresh, in season produce, eat lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, moderate amounts of fish and lean meats and only eat red meat occasionally. You can also drink wine, albeit in moderation. So no more WKD's and alcopops, these are full of sugar. Wine contains antioxidants and drinking it with meals will mean you are more likely to savour it, rather than glug it down!
If you don't like to cook or don't think you are very good at it, you can still cut down on refined carbohydrates and typical western foods and start by making very small changes to your diet like switching to whole grain and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. The end result being that you don't have to think about dieting, you are just eating healthily.
Call it Mediterranean or not, right now it is one of the best diet's out there for longevity and heart health and it is inline with 'healthy' eating guidelines which many diets out there are not.
So Cheers, Salute, Sante! Here's to the Mediterranean way of life, and if this weather is depressing you, what better way to get some vitamin D than to book a holiday the Mediterranean this Summer. Where you can see first hand how you can eat the Mediterranean way, but be careful to avoid the British tourist traps where you are more likely to be served a full English than the typical local fare of olives, fresh seafood and salad.
Gotsis, E., Anagnostis, P., Mariolis, A., Vlachou, A., Katsiki, N., & Karagiannis, A. (2014). Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: An Update of Research Over the Last 5 Years. Angiology. doi: 10.1177/0003319714532169
Jew, S., AbuMweis, S. S., & Jones, P. J. (2009). Evolution of the human diet: linking our ancestral diet to modern functional foods as a means of chronic disease prevention. J Med Food, 12(5), 925-934.
Panagiotakos, D. B., Pitsavos, C., Polychronopoulos, E., Chrysohoou, C., Zampelas, A., & Trichopoulou, A. (2004). Can a Mediterranean diet moderate the development and clinical progression of coronary heart disease? A systematic review. Med Sci Monit, 10(8), RA193-198.
Salas-Salvadó, J., Guasch-Ferré, M., Bulló, M., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Nuts in the prevention and treatment of metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr, 100(Supplement 1), 399S-407S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071530
Scotece, M., Conde, J., Abella, V., Lopez, V., Pino, J., Lago, F., Gualillo, O. (2014). New drugs from ancient natural foods. Oleocanthal, the natural occurring spicy compound of olive oil: a brief history. Drug Discov Today.
Trichopoulou, A., Martínez-González, M. A., Tong, T. Y., Forouhi, N. G., Khandelwal, S., Prabhakaran, D., . . . de Lorgeril, M. (2014). Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: views from experts around the world. BMC Med, 12, 112.