In a recent global health index, Spain overtook Italy (and more than 168 other countries) to be declared the healthiest country in the world. The top two contenders, however, share more than their rivalry for top honours – experts believe that certain eating habits common to Spain and Italy may have a lot to do with their elevated health levels.
“The diet common to people living in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, south Italy and Spain, incorporates a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and healthy fats derived from nuts, olive oil and fish. Herbs and spices replace salt for flavour, and red wine is consumed in moderation. To date, this is among the most scientifically reviewed diets and is often advocated as the eating pattern of choice when it comes to reducing cardiovascular risk and increasing overall longevity.
It has shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women, while also protecting against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Carlyne Remedios, nutritionist at Digestive Health Institute by Dr Muffi. Adds Delnaaz T Chanduwadia, chief dietician at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, “While the Journal of American Medicine Association published a study in 2008 indicating that the Mediterranean diet can reverse the risk of metabolic disease, other research also suggests that it can significantly reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, while enabling healthy weight loss.”
Choosing to eat the Mediterranean way doesn’t necessarily mean swapping every meal with gazpacho or paella. In fact, as Chanduwadia points out, there is no single “correct” way to follow the Mediterranean diet. “You can, quite easily, incorporate its basic tenets and enjoy the health benefits, once you understand the crux of this diet and lifestyle,” she says.A few small but crucial changes include:
The right fat: Replace refined oils with olive oil, says Dr Siddhant Bhargava, nutritional scientist at Food Darzee. The latter is high in monosaturated fatty acids, which help reduce cholesterol. You can either saute vegetables in olive oil or use it in salad dressings. Interestingly, unlike many of its counterparts, the Mediterranean dietary mantra doesn’t shy away from fats. This, experts believe, is one of the biggest reasons why the diet is successful in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2018 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a diet rich in olive oil and nuts was likelier to be healthier for your heart than even a reduced-fat diet.
More whole grains: Move away from refined flour and opt for whole grains and millets, which are indigenous to India, Chanduwadia says. She also suggests using dates, figs, nuts and seeds for sweets instead of refined sugar. Rohit Tambe, head chef at Easy Human Café, recommends quinoa, almond and ragi flour as healthier, tastier alternatives to refined flour. Whole grains have a lower glycaemic index, Dr Bhargava explains, which makes them well suited to individuals suffering from hypoglycaemia or diabetes. These also keep you satiated for longer, thereby curbing eating binges.
Lean meats such as chicken and fish should be integral to your daily
meals, advises Dr Bhargava. Choose grilled preparations to preserve the
nutritional integrity of the meat, while regulating your consumption of fats. The Omega 3 fatty acids in fish are especially beneficial in promoting good heart health and keeping your blood pressure in check. Vegetarians can up their protein intake by consuming cottage cheese, yogurt, hung curd, and whole pulses and beans, says Chanduwadia.
Whole veggies: “It is quite common to see Indian households consuming meals comprising large amounts of roti/rice, with vegetables forming less than a third of their meals. We have to consciously work on incorporating more salads and vegetables in our daily meals – their portion should be twice that of grains,” Chanduwadia says. Tambe also highlights the importance of not compromising on the quality of produce to enjoy the maximum nutritious benefits of the food you consume. “Choose fresh and organic as often as possible. Buy seasonal, local produce to keep costs in check,” he suggests. Dr Bhargava recommends focusing on broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cucumbers, onions and lettuce, as well as on fresh fruit such as bananas, apples, apricots, figs, pears, oranges and melons.
Cooking techniques: Many typical Indian recipes involve overcooking produce, which results in nutrient depletion, says Chanduwadia, who recommends grilled, steamed and stir-fried recipes, and fresh salads.
Red wine in moderation: Red wine contains several antioxidants, including resveratrol, catechin, epicatechin and proanthocyanidins, which reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, and are also responsible for protecting against heart disease and cancer, says Dr Bhargava. An occasional glass of red wine, therefore, can make a healthy addition to your diet.
Decoding the diet
As a clean eater, the Mediterranean diet seemed like a natural choice to me. In keeping with its principles, I make sure to eat bowls of salads loaded with crunchy greens and brightly coloured vegetables, doused in olive oil with large handfuls of nuts. It’s important to understand that this diet is not necessarily low-calorie, but nutrient-dense and quite delicious. I also occasionally indulge in red wine, which has been shown to boost heart health. As a vegetarian, however, I sometimes struggle to find adequate sources of natural protein.
Mediterranean Flatbread What you need:
Whole grain flatbread 1/4 cup ricotta
One nectarine or orange, cut into segments
Five to six pieces of vegan mortadella (or regular mortadella; any kind of ham works too)
1/2 cup arugula leaves
A handful of walnuts, toasted
Two slices of a lemon, cut in to quarters
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
How to cook:
Toast the flatbread in a hot oven (about 180 degrees centigrade) for about 10 minutes.
Apply a generous layer of ricotta.
Top with the nectarines, mortadella, arugula, walnuts and fresh lemon.
Drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a good cracking of sea salt.
Original post on MID-DAY