The Mediterranean diet comprises the traditional food of people living in areas such as southern Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Turkey – natural foods such as vegetables, fruit, fish and olive oil along with plain carbohydrates such as bread and wholegrains, herbs, pulses, nuts and seeds, a little cheese, yogurt and milk, and very little red or processed meat and butter.
This diet appears to help prevent disease and illness, and slow down ageing, because it is rich in vitamins, minerals, plant chemicals, fibre and healthy fats. It’s also low in the items likely to have a detrimental effect on us, such as processed products, which often contain high levels of added sugar, saturated fat and salt, and may be stripped of beneficial elements such as fibre and vitamin C.
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People on the small, isolated Greek island of Ikaria are four times more likely to reach the age of 90 than Americans, and dementia is 75% less common – thought at least in part to be due to their traditional Mediterranean diet.
The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet
Heart disease prevention
One large 2016 Italian study found cardiovascular disease is more successfully treated with a Mediterranean diet than with cholesterol-lowering drugs.
A 2017 study showed that older people following this diet retain more brain volume. ‘As we age, the brain shrinks, which can affect learning and memory,’ said researchers.
Various studies have shown how Mediterranean food can help to prevent some cancers, including aggressive prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and one type of breast cancer.
Type 2 diabetes
The diet is associated with a reduced risk of this type of diabetes.
It has been shown to be one of the most successful at preventing and managing weight problems.
Mediterranean eating is strongly linked to a longer life, according to a great deal of research and reviews.
How to put the Med in your mealtimes
You can enjoy the benefits of a Mediterranean diet without having to give up all your favourite foods. Plus, many of the meals most loved in the Med are simple to prepare – pasta dishes, grills, simple sauces, delicious salads, gorgeous soups and stews.
While you may spend more on vegetables, fish and fruit, many Mediterranean staples are very cheap – pulses such as cannellini or borlotti beans, pasta – and you will save money if you buy less meat.
If you’ve never been a vegetable lover, try adding more to ‘composite’ meals such as pasta sauces, soups and stews. Everything from peppers and onions to cabbage and kale can taste superb this way.
There is no need to give up red meat completely – a small amount in a mainly veggie dish is the way to go. Consider using chunks of butternut squash, sweet potato and chickpeas instead of meat in a curry sauce, or how about grilled skewers of lean lamb with onion, aubergine and peppers instead of a plate of lamb chops?
Snack on fresh fruit and unsalted nuts, such as monounsaturated-fat-rich almonds and omega-3-rich walnuts, rather than biscuits or crisps. And pack as much salad greens into your lunch salad or sandwich as you can, with fresh fruit added to breakfast.
Rather than using olive oil, try British extra virgin rapeseed oil – it’s ideal for dressings, roasting and frying. It has a beautiful nutty flavour and golden colour, plus its nutritional benefits are every bit as good as olive oil.
Not keen on Mediterranean oily fish such as tuna and sardines? No matter – you’ll find even more omega-3 healthy fats in Atlantic or farmed British salmon, and nearly as much in river trout.
Instead of a Mediterranean-style tomato salad, try making a beetroot salad – the root is packed with health-boosting nutrients and compounds, such as anti-cancer betalain, blood-pressure lowering nitrates and prebiotics for gut health.
Make it British
If you’d rather stick to local, seasonal foods, you may be surprised how many of these match the Mediterranean favourites for health benefits.
Spring greens are as good as kale or chard for antioxidants and anti-cancer compounds; carrots have more vitamins, minerals and carotenes than aubergines; blackcurrants contain more vitamin C than most Mediterranean fruit; and a can of reduced-salt baked beans on wholemeal toast has just as much protein and fibre as chickpea hummus on wholemeal pitta.
Just bear in mind the general Mediterranean eating principles and you’ll be amazed by how many of your favourite meals you can still eat. See our food swap panel, left, for some more ideas.
Try these recipes
Warm roast beetroot, watercress and smoked salmon salad
Hot smoked trout, watercress, pomegranate and avocado salad
Potato and lentil salad with grilled salmon
Baked leeks and smoked salmon
Smoked salmon pancakes with beetroot and apple relish
Smoked chicked with beetroot, grains and lentils
Brain boosting beetroot smoothie
Beetroot fritters with horseradish cream
Blackcurrant cordial recipe