The Mediterranean diet could cut the risk of obesity by half as well as help to reduce the risk of developing one of the worst forms of breast cancer. With many other health benefits, here's how to eat the Mediterranean way

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It’s been around for centuries, quite literally, and according to UNESCO  involves “a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.” It incorporates cuisines and cultural elements from Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Morocco and Cyprus, and is reflective of seasonal transitions and living off the fat of the land (we’ll get to the fat bit later).

The Mediterranean diet has achieved near legendary status in many ways, and as nutritional therapist Emma Olliff  confirms, its health benefits can be far reaching:

“Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.”

The research doesn't stop there; in 2018 a small Brazilian study suggested the diet leads to greater bone and muscle mass in post-menopausal women, while a major study  which tracked participants over the course of a decade also found that eating the Mediterranean way can cut your risk of obesity by half. The University of Navarra and Carlos III Institute of Health in Spain made the discovery in their study of 16,000 people, which found that those who ate more meat and anomal fats as opposed to plenty of veg, fruit and legumes, were more at risk of obesity.

Furthermore, a small study in Spain published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that women who consumed an extra-virgin olive oil rich Mediterranean diet had a lower chance of developing breast cancer over the next five years when compared to those who ate a low-fat one. In 2017, a new, larger study for the World Cancer Research Fund found that following the diet could significantly reduce the risk of developing a specific type of breast cancer; oestrogen-receptor-negative (ER-negative) breast cancer, which is a postmeopausal type of the cancer that doesn't respond to hormone therapy.

So what exactly are the takeaway principles of the Mediterranean diet, and how can it benefit us Brits? Obviously takeaways aren’t on the menu, and it’s time to quit our addiction to all things beige - if the Mediterranean diet has a USP, it’s colour, variety, and more colour…

Eat lots of vegetables

Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese. Salads, soups, and crudité platters are also great ways to load up on vegetables.” It’s not the pasta or patatas that keep Mediterraneans in fine form - it’s likely the huge antioxidant load they pick up on their frequent trips to the veggie market. Antioxidants protect cells from free-radical damage and the more colours you eat, the more you reap the benefits of plant power.

Change the way you think about meat

“If you eat meat, consume smaller amounts and leaner cuts. For example put small strips of chicken on your salad rather than bacon.” The Mediterranean way of life prizes sustainable food production; fish and meat should be eaten mindfully, and legumes are often on the table instead of processed, cheap meat. Good quality protein is vital to Mediterranean mojo. Which leads us onto…

Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week

“If it’s helpful, you can jump on the ‘ meat free Monday ’ trend of forgoing meat on the first day of the week, or simply pick a day where you build meals around vegetarian proteins such as beans or lentils. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week - do make sure you aren't loading up on cheese, though.”

Use good fats

“Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals. Some vegetable oils higher in polyunsaturated fats - like sunflower, safflower, soybean, and corn oil - are more heart-healthy than the mostly monounsaturated fats in olive oil.” Essential fatty acids aren’t called ‘essential’ for nothing, as founder of Udo’s Choice  Udo Erasmus highlights:

“Essential fatty acids improve the membrane function of every cell in our body. This includes the blood cells, which are then better able to carry vital oxygen to the brain for cognitive function and remove carbon dioxide waste.”

It’s not just our brain and heart health that benefit from a ‘good fat’ boost…

“Youthful skin is full of plump, water-filled cells. The skin cell’s ability to hold water decreases with age. A healthy skin cell has a healthy membrane, which keeps good things in, like water and nutrients, and allows waste products to pass out. It is a fatty acid’s job to keep that cell healthy and its membrane functioning. Not getting enough essential fatty acids results in unstable membranes that cannot keep their buoyant shape, which in turn leads to saggy, aged skin.”

From reducing inflammation post exercise to nourishing hair and nails, getting the good fat balance right is crucial, so for optimum take up consider a supplement. Udo’s Choice Ultimate Oil Blend , £21.99, combines premium seed oils with coconut oil and evening primrose oil and is loved by beauty experts, athletes and nutritionists alike for its healing, performance enhancing and metabolism enhancing properties. For fishier sources of digestion and hormone balancing omega 3, read on...

Eat seafood twice a week

“Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, while shellfish such as mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.” The Mediterraneans have been onto the fact that fat isn’t an evil macronutrient for quite some time now, and their longevity and lifespan is telling that healthy fats likely play a big role in disease prevention and general wellbeing. Low fat is no go for most Mediterranean communities (as is calories counting), and inexpensive, fatty fish such as sardines make it simple and cheap to eat as the southern Europeans do. Sardines trump skin serums, every time.

Enjoy fewer dairy products

“Try eating only small amounts of cheese, and eat Greek or plain yogurt.” As dietician, nutritionist and Mediterranean diet specialist Elena Paravantes RD  points out, “avoid yogurt that tastes like cheesecake or blueberry pie”. The dairy that you do eat needs to be in the closest form possible to its natural source to reap the most benefits, and preferably full fat, as dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams  advocates in  Future Proof Your Skin! :

“Dairy fat, which is a saturated fat, has long been criticized as harmful and fat-reduced versions are highly advocated. However, new studies confirm that a  higher intake of dairy saturated fat seems to actually be associated with lower cardiovascular risk”

Like Emma, Dr Stefanie recommends only eating dairy “in moderation” (note the instruction to "enjoy"- that's important) and thinking about where your cheese and yogurt is coming from:

“Try to go for organic dairy from grass-fed cows, not only to avoid those added hormones and antibiotics but also because organic dairy contains a better omega-6/3 ratio compared to conventional dairy.”

On the subject of cows, Mediterraneans don’t graze…

Always eat breakfast

“Fruits, whole grains, and other fibre-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you full for hours eliminating the need for snacking.”

Three meals a day, made up of lean protein, a rainbow of veg, low GI carbohydrates and the odd bit of fruit, plus a helping of good fats, as above, will keep you going way past siesta time. Check out these three speedy, balanced breakfasts  if you don’t have until mañana to prepare yours.

For dessert, eat fresh fruit

“Instead of ice cream or cake, opt for strawberries, fresh figs, grapes, or apples.”

Plants, not processed puddings, are the way forward, and as above, seasonal is superior. If fruit is high GI, such as grapes or figs, team it with a dollop of full fat Greek yogurt. You’re basically on holiday.

A few final words to heed from Emma - Mediterranean isn’t a magic bullet:

“The diet does not state exact serving amounts per day, but rather lists total macronutrient distribution, which may be confusing for people. For example, the diet uses phrases such as ‘low to moderate intake’, ‘abundance’ and ‘often’, which does not give exact amounts. Calorie totals and physical activity parameters are not stated, so those who are looking for specific measurements are at a loss. Lastly, moderate consumption of wine, from one to two glasses per day, is encouraged when following the Mediterranean diet, which may not be advisable for people taking certain medication, those with elevated triglycerides or who have pancreatitis.”

If you’re drinking wine, always combine with a nutritious Mediterranean style spread and take your time over it as our European cousins would to slow alcohol absorption, and best not to hit the bottle everyday…

This feature was written in partnership with Udo’s Choice

For a nutritional consultation with Emma, or simple to learn more, visit her website  here .