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Why the Mediterranean diet triumphs as the most healthy and nourishing eating plan

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"Everything I am, I owe to spaghetti!" - so said the inimitable Sophia Loren.

While we can't exactly attribute our own life successes to pasta, we wholeheartedly back the sentiment.

After all, who doesn't love a plateful of the good stuff, heaped with grilled aubergines, fresh tomato sauce, maybe a little feta cheese and a splash of olive oil? Not forgetting rosemary Focaccia and a glass of red on the side, of course.

Mediterranean foods is the very definition of la dolce vita, conjuring up images of hazy summer days, lovable laughing relatives and general feelings of warmth and happiness (even if we are, in fact, eating half a can of M&S pasta sauce from the comfort of our sofa on a cold November evening).

But what really constitutes a healthy Mediterranean diet and how can we embrace it to best effect? 

With a new study highlighting Mediterranean grub as the best way to tackle obesity, we take a closer look at the health benefits of this particularly satisfying genre of cuisine - along with inspiring quotes and some delicious healthy recipes...

What is a Mediterranean diet?

Mediterranean diet

Fruit, veg and wholegrains

According to the NHS, a Mediterranean diet "incorporates the traditional healthy living habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea" and features:

- plenty of fruit and vegetables
- plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods – choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can
- some milk and dairy foods
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- just a small amount of foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar

A healthier type of fat

"The Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating — plus a splash of flavourful olive oil and perhaps even a glass of red wine," says respected US-based medical research group The Mayo Clinic. "It traditionally includes fruits, vegetables and grains. For example, residents of Greece average six or more servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

"Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few unhealthy trans fats, and bread is an important part of the diet. However, throughout the Mediterranean region, bread is eaten plain or dipped in olive oil — not eaten with butter or margarine, which contains saturated or trans fats. Nuts are another part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Nuts are high in fat, but most of the fat is healthy.

"The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn't on limiting total fat consumption, but rather on choosing healthier types of fat. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease."

Olive oil

Olive oil spoil

"The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat," says Mayo Clinic. "Olive oil is mainly monounsaturated fat — a type of fat that can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats. "Extra-virgin" and "virgin" olive oils (the least processed forms) also contain the highest levels of protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects."

Replace excess salt with herbs

"The overuse of salt in flavouring Western-style meals and fast foods has been linked with increased blood pressure," say the experts over at patient.co.uk. "The healthy alternative is to replace the excess salt with herbs, as Mediterranean folk have done for many years. This can also add new flavours to quite simple pasta, rice dishes and stews."

Less meat, more fish

"Aim for less meat and lean meats," says Dr. Gourmet. "The rule of thumb is to eat red meat only about once a week. When you are choosing meats, look for leaner cuts that will have less saturated fats." 

Look to replace meat with oily fish options, such as sardines, salmon and mackerel or even seafood. 

wine

Wine time

The Mediterranean diet goes hand-in-hand with wine - but crucially, this is good quality vino consumed in moderation (in other words, not knocking back a bottle and a half of bargain basement plonk). Red wine is especially good, as it's a rich source of antioxidants.

"Enjoy wine in moderation during meals, never drinking alone outside of the meal and never in excess," says nutritionist  Rachel Johnson, in a piece on Mediterranean food. "Drinking wine increases HDL (good) cholesterol, may help regulate blood sugar and can even help you digest your food and absorb its nutrients. Wines, especially reds, also deliver a dose of heart-healthy resveratrol. Take Trichopoulou’s advice and use wine “to enjoy life, not to forget life!”

The golden rules of Mediterranean eating 

Heidi Godman, editor of the Harvard Health Letter, suggests the following steps as an introduction to a Mediterranean diet:

- Sauté food in olive oil, not butter
- Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes
- Choose whole grains instead of refined breads and pastas
- Substitute a fish meal for red meat at least twice per week
- Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole

What fans and experts say

Sophia Loren

Commandments in Mediterranean eating, from those in the know:

Keep it healthy

"I love to eat, and I love to eat healthily. I love pasta. I love starch. Of course, you can't expect to add rich cream sauces and still enjoy its good effects. But if you stick to a healthy sauce, pasta is fine. I have lots of energy, and that is because I cook my own food, I go for walks in the woods, and I enjoy myself" - Sophia Loren

Eat with pleasure

"A meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation. From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, food is just fuel to give energy to your muscles. If you have no pleasure in it, you are breaking all the rules of eating." - France-based nutritionist Dr Francoise L'Hermite

Watch your portions

"The problem that people have is that they eat too large portion sizes. Italians have been eating pasta for hundreds and hundreds of years, and we’ve never been an obese nation. We do the pasta, the pizza, all the cheeses, but it all has to do with how much you eat. The average portion of pasta is between 75 -80 grams, and people will often eat around 150 to 200 grams. My tip would be to always weigh the pasta before you actually cook it." -  Italian chef and TV presenter Gino D’Acampo

food writer Anna del Conte

Food writer Anna del Conte

Forget dieting

"Before my first film, the casting director asked me to lose some weight, saying, 'On screen you're going to look much fatter'. I started drinking soups and then I was like, 'I can't do it, I can't go on a diet'. It's hell, it makes you very depressed - food is so important to me. I couldn't go on." - French Bond star Eva Green

Buy local and seasonal

"It's not just about buying local fresh food, which then, translates into healthy things for your body and skin. It's also about being part of the community and looking the people in the eye who have grown that food. All of these connections add to the vibrancy of life" - Amerian-Italian actress Marisa Tomei

Think bread

"Bread is like life to an Italian. Like life. I cannot imagine life without bread. Not one single meal goes by when I don't have bread. I must have bread. Italians must have bread. Italians have bread with everything." - food writer Anna del Conte

What are the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet?

Scientists have linked the Mediterranean diet to a whole ream of health benefits, from lowering the risk of breast cancer to combating heart disease:

It helps combat obesity

Doctors writing in the Postgraduate Medical Journal this month claimed that Mediterranean food may be better than low-fat diets for sustained weight loss among obesity patients. The experts criticised the weight-loss industry for focusing on calorie restriction rather than "good nutrition".

Italian food meal

It lowers cancer risk

A wide-ranging 2010 study that looked at Mediterranean dietary pattern and cancer risk in observational epidemiological studies concluded that "there is a probable protective role of the Mediterranean diet toward cancer in general". A 2013 paper by Ohio State University went further by suggesting that apigenin, a compound commonly found in the Mediterranean diet, essentially re-educates breast cancer cells into normal cells that die as scheduled. Research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that postmenopausal women with greater adherence to the diet had a reduced risk of breast cancer of 22%. 

It lowers diabetes type 2 risk

Researchers from Harokopio University in Athens, Greece conducted a large-scale study of 162,000 people in different countries over an average of 5.5 years, to see the health benefits of Mediterranean food. They concluded that a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 21 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared with other eating patterns.

The World Health Organisation has found that in regions of the world where plant-based diets are more common, the national or regional rates for non-communicable chronic diseases such as diabetes type 2 are considerably lower, compared to areas where animal-base diets are more prevalent. The Mediterranean diet is widely accepted to be one of the best plant-based diets, with many benefits and few risks. 

A Mediterranean diet cuts the risk of a heart attack or stroke

It cuts the risk of a heart attack or stroke

Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in either extra-virgin olive oil or nuts cuts by 30% the chances of those at risk of heart attacks or strokes suffering either event or dying of a heart condition, according to 2013 research from the New England Journal of Medicine.

It can prolong your life - by 15 years

A ten-year study by the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands followed 120,000 men and women aged 55 to 69. They found that those who adhered to a Mediterranean diet combined with exercise, not smoking and keeping to a healthy weight could live up to 15 years longer, compared to those who did not. The effect was strongest in women, who could live an extra 15 years compared to the least healthy people, while healthy men could enjoy eight years more.

Recipes, recipes, recipes

And finally, four of our favourite, most mouth-watering Mediterranean recipes from Pinterest.

Mediterranean mackerel with an Italian panzanella salad

A robust, hearty salad that showcases the very best of Mediterranean vegetables, along with healthy mackerel fillets and rough strips of ciabatta bread. 

Find a recipe here via donalskehan.com.

food

Parmigiana di Melanzane with mushrooms

A creamy and comforting dish with rich tomato sauce and oozy cheese. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad with zesty lemon vinegarette.

Find the recipe here via simply-delicious-food.com. 

food

Greek salad

Fresh and crisp, with juicy tomatoes, sliced red onion, Kalamata olives and crumbly feta on a bed of romaine salad leaves. What's not to love?

Find a recipe here via damdelicious.net.

Greek salad

Caponata

A traditional Sicilian aubergine stew, caponata is bursting with delicious flavours and textures. This recipe comes with grilled polenta wedges on the side, just for good measure.

Find a recipe here via happyheartedkitchen.blogspot.co.uk. 

caponata

Images: Pinterest, Getty Images and Rex Features

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