~ Exploring Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

Belfast News Letter, 07-24-06

People are becoming more and more aware that good health is linked to good diet. The difficulty has been defining a good diet. The diet followed in the UK, and indeed in much of northern Europe, is high in animal fats, which is related to a high incidence of coronary heart disease. The UK has a high incidence of heart disease, and cancers of the breast and bowel.

On the other hand, the traditional European Mediterranean diet is well known to be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, gallstones, diabetes, and cancers of the breast and bowel.

The Mediterranean diet has always included more cereals, more fish, more fruit and vegetables, and more olive oil than countries in northern Europe. Proteins and fats consumed in the UK tend to be from animals, whereas the Mediterranean diet contains a much higher proportion of fat and protein derived from vegetables. The fibre- rich carbohydrates of the Mediterranean diet can also help against and reduce obesity. The reduction in animal fats also offers the opportunity for achieving a more sensible balance of energy intake.

The Mediterranean diet is different. The variety of taste and texture, the bright colourful fruits, vegetables and pulses, the inclusion of fish as an exciting and tasty alternative to meat makes the diet easy and satisfying to follow. Here are a few ways to substitute your typical Western diet for a taste of the Mediterranean.

Bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and other cereals: These are filling but not fattening and should contribute half the calories of the diet. Add a wide variety of vegetables or salad and smaller quantities of meat, poultry or fish. Eat all types and choose wholegrain varieties where possible for their extra fibre.

Fruit and vegetables: Choose a wide variety and eat at least five portions a day. Include seeds, pulses and nuts, which are all good sources of essential fatty acids and soluble fibre. Fruit and green leafy vegetables are a good source of soluble fibre, vitamin C and folic acid. Yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables contain vitamins A, C, E, beta-carotene and other antioxidants that protect against heart disease.

Meat, poultry and fish: Meat is a good source of protein, but fatty meat is high in saturated fats. Choose lower fat alternatives such as poultry, fish or lean red meat. Oily fish is a good source of essential fatty acids that may protect against heart disease. Eat fish, including oily fish, such as mackerel, herring, tuna and salmon, at least three times a week.

Milk and dairy products: Dairy products, including low-fat varieties, are a very good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, which is needed for healthy bones. Cheese, butter, whole milk and cream are high in saturated fat and total fat. Choose lower fat varieties, such as low-fat yoghurts, fromage frais, skimmed and semi-skimmed milk.

Olive oil: Olive oil, specifically extra-virgin olive oil, is one of the "good oils' for you. It is a monounsaturated fat and contains major health benefits because of its vitamin A and E, chlorophyll, magnesium and a host of other cardio-protective nutrients. It has also been shown to reduce some cancers, as well as rheumatoid arthritis. Unlike other oils, olive oil possesses health benefits because it is refined and unheated. These types of fats aren't as damaging as saturated fats, but they should still be eaten sparingly.

Of course, the bonus of a glass or two of wine, particularly red wine, with meals makes this diet a pleasure to follow.

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