The Mediterranean Diet has been lauded as ‘the’ healthy diet, and chances are you may have been recommended it by your doctor or nutritionist if you have a chronic condition like high blood pressure or heart disease. It is a popular dietary suggestion for many chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and even dementia.
The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating based on traditional eating patterns seen in areas of Crete, Greece and southern Italy which, during the middle of the twentieth century, showed better life expectancy and lower rates of chronic health conditions than other areas with the same levels of healthcare. In 1993, the World Health Organisation, along with some other organisations, brought in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to help people recognise the balance of food they might try eating to mimic the traditional diets seen in these areas of longevity. It included plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, pulses, legumes and wholegrains, fish and lots of olive oil and other healthy fats, drinking plenty of fresh water, with smaller amounts of dairy, red wine and low red meat. It also proposed that fresh air, socialising and regular movement should be part of the daily plan and way of life as well.
But apart from the association between those areas and their traditional diets and longer living, where is the evidence that the Mediterranean Diet is good for us? How can we be certain that these dietary changes are beneficial to us?
Research shows that the Mediterranean Diet (MD) may be effective in reducing the risk of heart diseases and overall mortality. A women’s health study found that those following the MD had 25% less chance of heart disease over the 12-year study, and surmised that changes in levels of inflammation, blood sugar and obesity levels may have contributed to this.
In terms of aging and cognitive benefits, research shows that a diet high in antioxidants, such as the MD with its emphasis on fruits and vegetables and whole foods, may be protective against age-related diseases. In fact, an American study on Nurses’ Health found that women following the MD were 46% more likely to age healthily.
Finally, research into the MD has helped to dispel the myth that fat is bad for you and that we need to eat a low-fat diet to be healthy. The MD positively encourages consumption of extra virgin olive oil, oily fish and nuts, and other sources of healthy fats. One study that looked at a large group of people with diabetes and other heart disease risk factors found that following the MD with added extra virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the rates of deaths from stroke by almost 30%. Check out my newsletter later this month for information on healthy fats and how to incorporate them into our diets.
Some things to bear in mind, however, when incorporating the MD into our lives. It’s still important to think about the balance of foods and how we put together our plates to ensure that we are getting everything we need – BANT’s Healthy Eating Puzzle is a great place to start here.
Plus, it’s the eating pattern, variety and lifestyle considerations that may support the health benefits of the MD. Just eating extra nuts or more olive oil won’t cut the mustard. We need to think of this as an overhaul of the way we live – food, movement, sleep and stress reduction – and that way we can really reap the rewards.
Rainbow Breakfast Smoothie
Following on from the newsletter this week, here’s a great way to incorporate rainbow foods into your day.
1 cup mixed frozen berries – raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants - Red Blue Purple
Couple handfuls of spinach - Green
1 satsuma, peeled - Orange
1 inch ginger root, peeled and grated - Yellow
200ml almond milk - White
1 tbsp ground flaxseed - Tan / Brown
1 tbsp chia seeds - Black
200ml filtered water (and more, if thinner consistency desired
Put all of the ingredients in a high-speed blender and blitz until thick and smooth.
Pour into two glasses and add extra water until it’s the consistency you desire. Serve and enjoy!
"Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals for the most part governed by the impulse of passion"
- Alexander Hamilton, 1802
It's January. Everywhere you go you'll see images and messages about change. Changes in diets. Changes in exercise patterns. New challenges to try - dry January, Veganuary, walking challenges, drawing challenges. It's a great time of year to start working on these new things - a time to re-assess our lives and see what we'd like to tweak. But how can we make these changes stick? How do we know we're not going to be popping those new watercolour paints into the bottom drawer with last year's hobby?
To begin with we often try to rely on willpower. Willpower can be defined as the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals, or what could otherwise be called resolve. Secondly, it can be defined as the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse, or what could be termed suppression. For example, when you find yourself heading towards that leftover box of Christmas chocolates, you resolve not to eat it so you can have the reward of not gaining weight, and you also suppress the urge to eat them all because they are delicious.
This combination of resolve and urge suppression requires a great deal of self-control. However, research shows us that when we use willpower to resist temptation, this can leave us with less self-control to tackle other challenges. In a recent report, the American Psychological Association stated "A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse". So by resisting eating those chocolates, you may find yourself reaching for a burger later on, rather than the salad that you had planned to have. In a world where we have so many distractions competing for our attention - social media, one-click shopping, online streaming - the ability to resist tempation may get sapped quite early on. And additionally, it may have a knock-on effect on our ability to control our emotions, behaviours, or thoughts.
However, this doesn't mean we should give up! What can help us to ensure we keep going with that early morning yoga practice? Recent research has shown us that building habits may help maintain an activity indefinitely. A habit may be defined as responses that develop over time when people do the same thing in the same context. Habit building can be encouraged by including some or all of the following:
So maybe if you're looking to tweak how you eat, exercise, or live your life, rather than relying on willpower and self-control to keep it going, have a look at how you can build it into a habit. Then it may last a lifetime.
This is a real family favourite, and one we come back to time and again. It's largely made from store cupboard items and common veg that I usually have in the fridge. This is also a good recipe to make if you have veggie or vegan friends popping over, or to add in to your repertoire if you are thinking of trying out Veganuary.
Do have a look at my article 'Six Simple Steps for a Health Veganuary' if you are thinking of taking part next month.
What exactly is mindful eating?
Well, research defines it as incorporating the following:
So, how does mindful eating work?
Digestion actually begins in the brain in what is termed the 'cephalic phase' of eating. Just by acknowledging, smelling and seeing our food, our brain starts to get our body ready for the digestive process ahead. Just think about a time when you've smelled fresh bread wafting out of the bakers, or when you watch Nigella making anything on TV - your body starts to prepare to eat - your tummy rumbles, your mouth waters.
Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system,, or the 'rest and digest' mode of our bodies, by the evidence of an imminent meal triggers the brain to prepare the digestive tract for nourishment.
Taking this time allows your digestive juices in your mouth and stomach to get to work, thereby improving the level of digestion you will achieve. Remember the last time you bolted down a meal and felt bloated and terrible - your body wasn't in the right state to be accepting that food, and therefore your digestion was impaired.
But it's not just physical preparation that is helped by mindful eating. Research shows that it affects us emotionally too. Psychologists have found that mindfulness helps people to recognise the difference between emotional and physical hunger and satiety, thereby introducing a moment of opportunity and consideration between the urge to eat and the act of eating.
It's all too common for us to eat for many reasons that aren't actual physical hunger - boredom, sadness, irritation, sometimes just because it's there. And that's ok - but by giving ourselves a moment's contemplation, we allow ourselves the opportunity to decide if it really is what we want to do.
Check out my article here for some top tips for mindful eating during the festive season.
Baked Cods with Puy Lentils
This is a lovely, super-quick mid-week meal - full of good quality protein, and with cheap and easy to find ingredients. This is great with a big side helping of green veggies.
6 shallots, chopped (use 2 small onions, if you don't have shallots)
2 leeks, sliced
4 med carrots, peeled and cubed
2 packets pre-cooked Puy lentils (I use Merchant Gourmet, but you can easily replace with one tin of pre-cooked green lentils)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp Herbes de Provence (or any woody, aromatic herb like rosemary or sage)
2 cloves garlic
4 frozen cod fillets
Please get in touch and find out more - I offer a free 30-minute exploratory call.