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Mediterranean diet: the secrets of a healthy and balanced diet
The Mediterranean diet is not a dietary regimen, but a lifestyle typical of the populations of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. With its many benefits, it’s a great ally for our health and wellbeing. The virtues of this diet are recognised throughout the world: in addition to representing a healthy eating model with a proper balance of different nutrients, the Mediterranean diet is based primarily on foods of plant origin, to be consumed according to seasonality.
The Mediterranean diet belongs to the food tradition of Italy and other populations in the Mediterranean basin. The term ‘Mediterranean diet’ was coined in the 1950s following studies by the American biologist and physiologist Ancel Keys. He conducted a study comparing the eating habits of seven countries, including the United States, Italy, Finland, Greece, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands and Japan, to assess their cardiovascular health benefits.
The historical roots of the Mediterranean diet are to be found in the culture of two great civilisations of the past, the Etruscans (present in Tuscany and parts of Lazio and Umbria), and the Greeks in the area of Magna Graecia, in southern Italy. The Mediterranean diet has also been influenced by other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, especially Greece, Spain and Morocco.
In 2010, UNESCO recognised the Mediterranean diet as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO, the Mediterranean diet ‘promotes social interaction, as communal eating forms the basis of the social customs and festivities shared by a given community, and has given rise to a remarkable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The diet is based on respect for the land and biodiversity, and ensures the preservation and development of traditional activities and crafts related to fishing and agriculture in Mediterranean communities’.
The Mediterranean diet has also been recognised by the World Health Organization, which has considered it a healthy and sustainable dietary regime.
Several studies have demonstrated the numerous benefits of the Mediterranean diet for our bodies.
The Mediterranean diet is based on the prevalent consumption of foods of vegetable origin such as cereals and derivatives, legumes, fruit and vegetables, using extra virgin olive oil as the main condiment. Animal products, such as meat, dairy products and fish, are also included, but they should be consumed in moderation. The cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet are:
- Plenty of foods of vegetable origin such as bread, pasta, barley, spelt, rice and other cereals, preferably wholegrain, vegetables, legumes, fresh and dried fruit
- Moderate consumption of foods of animal origin such as fish, white meat, dairy products and eggs
- Limited quantities of red meat
- Extra virgin olive oil as a primary source of fat, replacing other fatty condiments of animal origin, such as butter
One of the characteristics of the Mediterranean diet is the possibility of preparing individual dishes, complete in terms of nutritional values combining, for example, cereals and legumes (pasta with beans or other legumes) or meat or fish with vegetables. It also matters a lot how these foods are prepared, favouring certain types of cooking such as steaming, baking or pan-frying.
The daily calories are to be divided into five meals, three main ones (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and two snacks (one mid-morning and the other mid-afternoon).
The Mediterranean diet focuses above all on the correct choice of food and the right intake of the various nutrients needed by the body (carbohydrates, proteins and fats).
Equally important are certain micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, which do not provide calories, but allow the body to function properly.
In order to understand on a more practical level the meaning of these percentages in terms of food to be consumed, several graphical representations have been developed. The best known is the food pyramid, proposed in the 1990s to summarise all the principles of the Mediterranean diet. Over the years, this graphic representation has been slightly modified: the new pyramid of the modern Mediterranean diet, drawn up in 2009 by Mediterranean scientists and exponents of international institutions (III International Conference of the International Interuniversity Studies Centre on Mediterranean Food Cultures, CIISCAM) takes into account the evolution of times and society, highlighting the basic importance of physical activity, conviviality at the table, the habit of drinking water and suggesting that the consumption of seasonal and locally sourced foods be favoured.
The positive effects of the Mediterranean diet on health do not depend on individual foods or their components, but on the eating habits as a whole, on the combination of nutrients and their variety as well as the lifestyle in general.
The new pyramid of the Mediterranean diet indicates the foods to be included in the main meals and, going up, the foods that should be introduced every day, but not necessarily in all meals. The foods that make up a main meal are placed at the base and, gradually ascending, the other foods necessary to complete the meal are shown, distributed according to a daily or weekly recommended frequency of consumption.
Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of the main food groups typical of the Mediterranean diet.
Fruit and vegetables
These form the basis of the Mediterranean diet, so much so that the recommended dose is at least five portions a day, varying the colours and preferring local and seasonal products (tomatoes in summer, strawberries in spring, etc.). They have a high content of vitamins (especially carotenoids, B vitamins and vitamin C), minerals, fibre and water. Fruit also contains sugar and can be a good energy snack.
Cereals and derivatives
These form the essential base of complex carbohydrates and fibre to achieve a balanced diet. Whole-grain cereals should be preferred because they promote faster gastric emptying, are easier to digest, are rich in other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and, compared to refined cereals (bread, pasta and white rice), have a lower glycaemic index, therefore raising blood sugar levels less, as they release glucose in a slow and steady manner. Although potatoes are not cereals, they are an alternative to be consumed, however, in moderation, like refined cereals.
Milk and dairy products
These contain animal proteins of high biological value, thus helping to meet protein requirements. They are an excellent source of calcium and some vitamins (especially B2 and A). They also contain fats: to avoid taking in too much, it’s best to opt for skimmed versions.
Extra virgin olive oil provides energy from monounsaturated fatty acids, but is also an excellent source of vitamin E, which has antioxidant properties that help fight cellular ageing. It is the most preferable condiment.
Nuts and oily seeds
Walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds, as well as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, etc. contain fats of high nutritional quality. They are also rich in vitamin E and other vitamins (B2, B6), iron, magnesium, fibre and protein. Since they are very caloric, you should not overdo the portions.
Aromatic herbs and spices
The taste of Mediterranean dishes is also linked to the use of different spices such as sage, rosemary, oregano, onion and garlic, which have various beneficial properties and help to avoid adding salt to dishes.
Beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils and broad beans are foods with a low fat content and good protein content. They also contain fibre and carbohydrates and are good sources of B vitamins and minerals (iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium).
Includes chicken, turkey, guinea fowl and other poultry. The white meat group also includes rabbit. They provide protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. They have a lower fat content than other meats.
Both oily fish (salmon, anchovies, sardines, etc.) and white fish (cod, sea bream, sole, etc.) provide protein, B vitamins and iron. The fats are of better nutritional quality than meat from land-based animals. More than two servings per week are recommended.
Fresh or seasoned. Due to its fat (especially saturated) and energy content, cheese should be eaten no more than twice a week. It provides protein, calcium and B vitamins.
They provide proteins with a high biological value, useful fats for our body (phospholipids), vitamin B2, vitamin A and minerals such as iron and phosphorus.
Important source of protein, B vitamins, vitamin A and minerals (iron, zinc, phosphorus). Leaner cuts should be preferred to limit saturated fat intake. To be consumed in moderation once or twice a week.
They should be eaten less than once a week as they are high in salt, nitrates and nitrites and, often, fat.
Sweets, salty snacks, soft drinks and fruit juices
This group includes superfluous, enjoyable foods that take their place at the top of the pyramid because they are high in fat, simple sugars and/or salt.
A varied and balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet ensures a supply of nutrients and beneficial substances that play a protective or preventive role.
Many of the numerous studies available on the Mediterranean diet have emphasised the health benefits for women. During the growth and development phase, a correct diet such as the Mediterranean diet helps to ensure the right amount of calcium and vitamin D useful for the peak of bone mass, while with the onset of menopause, it helps to maintain strong bones. According to some research, post-menopausal women who follow the Mediterranean diet have greater bone and muscle mass.