Lots of us, who have lived all our lives in Mediterranean countries, we are sure, by-default (and most of the cases by mistake), that we follow a Mediterranean diet, although we usually have few or mixed-up knowledge about it.
Do we actually know what the components of the Mediterranean diet are? Are we familiar with its different varieties and are we sure that we are following one?
There is so much information (and misinformation) today that one can get easily confused when it comes to the Mediterranean diet.
A nice photo of a sunny beach, of a Greek island, or of a ground of olives and/or grapes in the label of a product does not always guarantee its ¨Mediterranean¨ identity. Learning to read ingredient labels is one of the best things we can do, and the less ingredients the better.
So, let’s be careful and let’s start by clarifying here some important issues about Mediterranean diet in general.
First of all, the Mediterranean diet, inscribed in 2013 on the UNESCO representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is more than a diet. It is a dietary pattern, a whole lifestyle, which embraces healthy habits to promote healthy ageing.
The Mediterranean diet describes the healthy dietary pattern of our ancestors who lived happily ever after, reaching their early 90’s or 100’s, enjoying healthy and active lives. In fact, the traditional Mediterranean diet was the dietary pattern followed by people in the island of Crete, Greece in mid-60’s. Since then only slight changes have been made to this pattern to allow for adaptation into the modern way of life of Mediterranean populations.
All Mediterranean countries share common characteristics of this unique and healthy dietary pattern and at the same time they include their traditional products. “Tortilla de patata” for the Spanish, “Pizza” for the Italians, Spinach pie (spanakopita) for the Greeks. These products used to be handmade products, typical of each country, and produced by the use of local ingredients without previous processing.
This is an important thing to remember about Mediterranean diet. It is based on traditional products with the minimum, previous processing that are all produced in the Mediterranean basin.
For example, the traditional Italian pizza margarita with fresh-cut tomato, fresh oregano, olive oil and fine pizza dough has nothing to do with the pre-cooked, frozen pizza called “margarita” that we can find in any super or mini market, in terms of taste, ingredients and healthiness.
Secondly, we should bear in mind that olive oil is the main source of fat and it is mainly consumed in the form of extra virgin olive oil. It substitutes all other sources of fat in the Mediterranean diet, and it is used for raw and cooking proposes in a range of40 to 50 mg per day (more than 4 tablespoons).
Olive oil is the main ingredient when cooking, it is not margarine nor butter. Olive oil is also the basis of lots of homemade dressings, mayonnaise is not. But most importantly, olive oil tastes good! It can be poured in hot, freshly baked bread and with tomato slices on top it can be the most delicious snack! Do not be afraid of weight gain.
It is not going to happen! Mediterranean diet is, indeed, a high-monounsaturated fatty acid diet but this, by no means, leads to weight gain when you follow the recommended quantities and not ingesting 1 lt of extra virgin olive oil per day!
Equilibrium is fundamental. Consuming a variety of locally produced products in an equilibrated way is essential in the Mediterranean dietary pattern. Fruits and vegetables are consumed daily in more than 3 and 2 portions, respectively. Cooked or raw vegetables are always accompanied by extra virgin olive oil and not by sauces.
In that way, human body better absorbs their antioxidants and vitamins.
Dairy products consumption is moderate and mainly in the form of yogurt (fermented milk product) and cheese.
Fish and seafood is consumed 3 to 4 days per week and white meat, such as poultry, is preferred.
Red meat is only consumed once or twice per month. Yes, per month!
Water is advised ad-libitum, as the main hydration liquid and it is recommended in more than 1.5 liter per day.
When alcohol is desired, this is consumed in the form of red wine (one glass of red wine for women and up to two glasses for men).
Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts are common staples in the traditional Mediterranean diet, because they are also locally produced, and a 30 g/day-consumption is advised. Nuts can be added in salads or yogurt but also consumed raw as snacks.
At last, but definitely not least, Mediterranean dishes-cooking includes a great variety of culinary herbs. Oregano, basil, thyme, laurel, rosemary and much more herbs, abundantly found in the Mediterranean land, give exceptional taste to all dishes.
In that way, we do not need added salt to achieve palatability. Thus, not only meals are delicious but also do take care of our blood pressure.
Health requires balance and harmony and the Mediterranean diet not only offers that, but it is also delicious and fun!
So, let’s all get back to basics and try to adapt our dietary patterns to what has always been Mediterranean-ly next to us!