Why I’m a fan of the Mediterrasian Diet

For every disease that exists there’s a country that doesn’t have it. I’ve been studying which countries have the lowest rates of which diseases, and why, to help inform about what the optimal diet really is.

Overall, Thailand, rural China and Japan and other Far East countries do well. For example, rates of breast and prostate cancer are strikingly low. India reports low rates of certain diseases, but high rates of others. It has a high rate of blindness due to lack of vitamin A and DHA from fish. Some parts of the Mediterranean do well too, but this too is changing. Greece, for example, has a very high rate of obesity among men, comparable to the US. A Mediterranean style diet has been linked to lower rates of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s – and longer telomeres, according to a study in the British Medical Journal.

It is always hard to tease out what exactly in the diet and lifestyle can explain the differences but overall countries that do better have:

  • More vegetarian and fish protein
  • More vegetables and fresh fruits
  • Less wheat, more rice
  • Less sugar and less carbohydrates overall
  • Less refined foods, more wholefoods
  • More legumes – beans and lentils
  • More nuts and seeds

Total calorie intake, and exercise, contributing to obesity are also a factor. But there are also local ‘hero’ foods, herbs and spices that add specific health benefits that are not a staple part of the Western diet, but well worth including. Adding these into your dietary repertoire can give you the full benefits of a Mediterrasian style diet.

These include:

Take a look at those you rarely use or have never heard of and I’ll show you how to incorporate them into delicious daily recipes.

Variety is the spice of life and if you’re bored making the same old dishes these ingredients are widely used in the recipes in Delicious, Healthy Sugar-Free. The more you can include these foods in your diet the healthier you are going to be.

ARTICHOKES: For centuries the artichoke has been used to help detoxify the body and cleanse the blood. Today it is known to improve gall bladder secretions and boost liver function, so it’s ideal if you have overindulged in fatty foods or alcohol. Marinated artichokes in olive oil are a delicious addition to Mediterranean salads and antipasti dishes.

BASIL: This fragrant herb helps digestion, so scatter a few roughly torn leaves over a salad or enjoy it in pesto. Basil also contains vitamin C and has high levels of the group of antioxidants called carotenoids, including beta-carotene, which the body then converts to vitamin A.

CHICKPEAS: Also known as garbanzos, chickpeas are a type of pulse and a common ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes, including hummus and falafel. A good source of insoluble fibre to aid digestion, they are also rich in folate and the mineral molybdenum, which helps the body detoxify sulphites, a common preservative added to foods such dried fruit and wine.

CHILLI: This hot spice is packed with vitamins A and C, both of which are powerful antioxidants and immune system boosters. In fact, chillies contain more vitamin C than citrus fruits. Of course, it’s hard to eat as much. To get all the flavour but less heat, remove the white seeds and membranes. Chilli has been associated with reducing congestion and with pain relief, as well as with aiding digestion. Contrary to public opinion is doesn’t increase acid levels in the stomach.

CINNAMON: The bark of the cinnamon tree is available in its dried tubular form, known as a quill, or as ground powder. The essential oils in this warming, sweet spice have been found to contain active components called methylhydroxy chalcone polymers (MCHP) which have anti-blood clotting actions, reduce inflammation, inhibit the growth of bacteria and yeasts, and help blood sugar control. Aim for half a teaspoon a day however, if you have blood sugar issues and sugar cravings supplement a concentrated ‘Cinnulin®’ extract with ten times the MCHP, together with chromium.

COCONUT: The flesh and milk of the coconut are used in many Indian dishes. It is also a traditional remedy, due largely to its high lauric acid content, which is antibacterial and antiviral. Though coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, this is a plant-based ‘medium chain triglyceride (MCT) saturated fat, which is more easily used as energy rather than being stored as fat in the body, like animal fats. Being saturated, it is also very stable and isn’t easily damaged by the cooking process to form harmful free radicals. You can stir fry with coconut oil and use coconut milk or cream in soups. There are many coconut inspired alternatives these days, from yoghurt to ice-cream, But don’t be fooled by coconut sugar. It was falsely claimed to be low GI but is basically fructose. It is widely used in both India and Thailand.

CORIANDER: Thai cooking makes use of all parts of the coriander plant, not just the leaves (used as garnish and main ingredient in Greek tabouleh salad) but also the roots (pounded with garlic to form a paste) and seeds (roasted, ground and used in marinades). Coriander is a good digestive aid.

GALANGAL: Similar in appearance to ginger, galangal provides a distinctive flavour and aroma in Far Eastern cuisine. Frequently featuring in fish and shellfish recipes, often with garlic, ginger, chilli and lemon or tamarind, you can find it in Oriental grocery stores. It is thought to improve digestion and reduce wind, help nausea, reduce inflammation and aid circulation.

GINGER: A characteristic flavour in Oriental cooking, ginger is delicious in broths and stirfries, but also goes incredibly well in sweet dishes. For instance, you can add ground ginger to biscuits or granola. Rich in iron, zinc and vitamin C, as well as being anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory, ginger’s health properties are renowned. I make ginger juice in my juicer and freeze it into ice-cubes to store it for ginger-based drinks.

HOLY BASIL: Also known as tulsi, this traditional Thai herb is often used in stir-fries with chilli and garlic, and has revered medicinal properties. An antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, it is also an adaptogen, which means it helps the body cope with stress, plus it is thought to aid bloating. However, it’s not widely available everywhere, so seek it out in specialist stores.

KEFIR: Similar in taste and texture to thin natural yoghurt, this fermented drink is delicious partnered with sweet fruit for a fruit salad breakfast or pudding, or blended with fruit into a smoothie. Kefir is richer in probiotic bacteria than natural yoghurt, so it helps replenish stores in the gut, aids digestion, fights infection and balances hormones. Many people who are lactose-intolerant find they have no problems with kefir as it contains enzymes that digest the lactose. You can make your own (see Members Newsletter issue 96 or my book Improve Your Digestion)

LENTILS: Dahl is a standard accompaniment to hotter Indian and Far Eastern curries and it’s often made from lentils, although split peas and mung beans are also used. The mild, savoury flavour of the pulses counterbalances the highly spiced curry. Lentils also contain fibre, protein and significant amounts of magnesium and folic acid.

LEMONS AND LIMES: Squeeze fresh lemon juice into cold water for a refreshing drink or drink hot water with lemon juice for a cleansing start to the day. It can also be squeezed over food such as rice or quinoa salads or plain avocado to add flavour without the need for salt. The tartness of lime juice also cuts through the strong, aromatic herbs and spices used in Thai dishes. Kaffir lime leaves are also a characteristic flavour in Thai cooking, imparting a sharp citrus flavour to the classic tom yum soup. The leaves can be used fresh or dried and can be stored frozen. Lemons and limes contain much more vitamin C per gram than oranges.

MINT: This leafy green herb contains menthol, a compound that facilitates digestion and has antiseptic properties. A cup of sweetened mint tea is often sipped after meals or as a refreshing pick-me-up in hot weather. Rinse a sprig of fresh mint and plunge it into boiling water to make your own, unsweetened version.

OLIVES: Rich in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, olives are also a good source of vitamin E and contain polyphenols such as oleocanthal and an amazing antioxidant called hydroxytyrosol. These have potent anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve the symptoms of conditions like asthma, eczema and arthritis.

ONIONS: A regular ingredient in Middle Eastern dishes, used in everything from salads to taboulleh and tagines, onions add flavour to dishes, but also sulphurous compounds which are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, and that help your liver detoxify harmful substances. Red onions are best being high in quercitin. I aim to eat an onion every day. People who do so have stronger bones.

OREGANO: This herb is one of the highest in antioxidants and also has widespread anti-fungal and parasitical effects so keeps your digestive system healthy.

PARSLEY: Blend large amounts of parsley with basil, watercress and a little extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and black pepper for a vivid green sauce to spread on sandwiches, swirl in soups or toss through rice, pasta and quinoa dishes. Underused as a mere garnish, this humble herb packs a mean nutritional punch and is very rich in vitamin C, calcium and beta-carotene. Try flat leaf parsley in salads.

POMEGRANATES: The high level of polyphenol antioxidants has given the previously obscure pomegranate A-list celebrity superfood status in recent years. Evidence suggests heart-friendly properties, with the polyphenols helping to inhibit arterial furring. The juicy, jewel-like seeds are delicious sprinkled on salads, in bulgur or quinoa or fruit salads.

SEAWEED: Seaweeds such as kombu and nori are common ingredients in Japanese dishes such as as soups and sushi. They are an excellent source of minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and iodine. Nori, part of the laver seaweed family, is one of the few sources of vegetarian B12.

SESAME SEEDS: Used in breads and pastries, as a coating for stuffed dates and in sweet halva, as well as being ground to make tahini paste, sesame seeds contain omega-6 fats and a type of beneficial fibre called lignans, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and protect the liver.

SHEEP’S AND GOAT’S MILK CHEESE: Sheep’s cheeses, like feta and Pecorino, and goat’s milk cheeses share a tangy, sharp flavour that works well in salads. The fat particles in goat’s and sheep’s milk are close in size to those in human breast milk and are easier to digest than cow’s milk alternatives. These milks are also rich in calcium, phosphorous, zinc and B vitamins.

SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS:These rich, smoky flavoured mushrooms are widely used in dishes such as stir-fries and broths. Store them in a paper bag in the fridge or buy dried. A symbol of longevity in Asia, they contain lentinan, a polysaccharide which is, in fact, an approved drug in Japan.They also contain some of the highest levels of a powerful antioxidant called ergothioneine, all eight essential amino acids and several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12.

SOBA NOODLES: Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour, which, despite the name, is not a form of wheat, but is gluten-free and therefore easy to digest. These noodles are ideal served in cold noodle salads or in soups, or instead of rice with a stir-fry.

SOYA: Soya beans are a valuable part of the traditional Japanese and Chinese diet. They provide protein and plenty of research attributes the low rates of breast cancer in Japan and China to their regular consumption. The Japanese consume soya in unadulterated forms such as miso and edamame (soya beans cooked in their pods). Tempeh, seitan and natto are fermented soya products. They do not eat the processed, additive-ridden products such as soya burgers and sausages that are becoming so popular in the West.

TAMARIND PASTE: This sticky pulp from inside the bean-pod of the tamarind tree has a sweet and sour flavour that works particularly well with fish. You’ll find it in Oriental stores, possibly in the pod, or as jars of paste in the international section of good supermarkets. Tamarind is rich in potassium, which helps to control blood pressure and fluid retention, but its main benefit is that, being high in hydroxyl citric acid (HCA) it makes it harder to store carbs as fat. It is widely used in Indian and Thai cooking.

TENDERSTEM: This king of broccoli originates from Japan. It is particularly high in vitamin C and folic acid and has five times the glucosinolate content of standard broccoli. Glucosinolates aid liver detoxification enzymes and boost antioxidant status. Steam or lightly boil tenderstem in a little water to minimise any nutrient loss.

TOMATOES: Sun-blush or sun-dried tomatoes are delicious, distinctly Mediterranean additions to rice, quinoa or couscous salads. Cooked tomatoes (in tomato purée or canned tomatoes) are a better source of lycopene than raw tomatoes, an antioxidant shown to help protect eyesight and to boost the skin’s defences against ultraviolet rays from sunlight.

TURMERIC: The ‘golden spice of India’ is used in everything from curry powder to medicines, as it is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric and what gives it its brilliant yellow-ochre colour, is a powerful antioxidant that can protect the body from damage by free radicals – presumably the reason why Indians dip fish in the spice before frying. Use it in curries, soups or add to rice, couscous, bulgur and quinoa dishes during cooking to give colour and flavour.

WALNUTS: Delicious sprinkled on goat’s cheese salads, added to cakes, cereal or simply as a snack, walnuts are a good plant source of omega 3 fats and a handful of unroasted, unsalted walnuts per day will help you to up your intake of them. In fact, nibbling on nuts has been shown to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease by anything from 15 to 50 per cent!

For inspiring and delicious recipes, using many of these foods, herbs and spices, see my cookery book range