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VIVA ITALIA – THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET

Text by Rod Cedaro (M. App. Sc.)

Consultant Exercise Physiologist ACC Accredited Level III Triathlon Coach

On a recent trip to Italy my partner (who is a dietician) and I found it fascinating to look at the manner in which typical Italians eat, compared to Aussies and Americans (we travelled back to Australia via the States – what a contrast in food habits to Italy!).

Whilst Italy has its smattering of Fast Food restaurants with the Golden Arches rearing its ugly head among the beautiful monuments and the like, it seems, in majority of the cases at least, that the only people in these establishments are the Anglo-Saxon tourists that don’t know any better!

The Italians on the other hand are chowing down on a derivation of what has commonly become known as the “Mediterranean Diet”.

For the last 20 years public health eating guidelines in places like Australia and the USA have emphasised a balance between groups of foods intended to meet the basic nutritional requirements of the population. The emphasis has been on carbohydrate rich foods with a low fat intake. The problem is – at least in industrialised countries – that the emphasis has shifted from nutritional adequacy to “over” nutrition and the consumption of excessive amounts of foods closely linked to cardiovascular disease and certain forms of cancer.

These guidelines have been typically displayed in the “food pyramid” and lump certain foods together (e.g. Red meat is lumped together with chicken, fish, poultry, beans and nuts and called “protein” foods) making no distinction between vegetable oils and animal fats and not really distinguishing between full fat and low fat diary options.

Relatively recent studies however have documented the benefits of the “classic” Mediterranean diets in fostering longer and healthier lives for those who adhere to them. Given that the Mediterranean Sea is bordered by some 16 different countries there is no “one” Mediterranean Diet per se, but rather food habits that appear to be common throughout this region and which promote health and longevity in those eating in this manner.

So what are the common denominators?

All versions of the Mediterranean diet appear to have:

  • ¬†High consumption of fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts and other cereals.
  • Olive oil is used extensively in cooking and as a dressing.
  • There are moderate amounts of fish – particularly those that are oily in nature – and only limited amounts of red meat.
  • There is a low to moderate consumption of full fat diary products such as cheese and yoghurt.
  • Alcohol – particularly red wine – is consumed in moderation and usually in conjunction with meals.
  • They rely on local, seasonal and fresh produce – not a lot of processed/packaged food is consumed.
  • They lead an active and relaxed lifestyle.

Rod Cedaro dietGiven that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet has now been documented to enhance health and longevity (see reference listed below), this style of eating has promoted researchers to ask, “why” and “which foods” have these protective properties.

Their findings can be summarised as follows:

(i) Olive oil is used instead of butter. margarine and other fats for cooking. It is a rich source of monounsaturated fat which protects against heart disease possibly because it displaces saturated fat in the diet. It is also a source of antioxidants such as vitamin E, but equally important, Olive oil is used extensively as a dressing in various vegetable based dishes, salads and to fry fish.

(ii) Fruit and veg. Study after study have found these foods to have protective qualities against both heart disease and cancer, probably as a consequence of their antioxidant properties. Tomatoes in particular have come under closer scrutiny because they are used so extensively in the Mediterranean diet in sauces and the like. In fact the process of heating and cooking tomatoes increases the availability of the compound lycopene which is richly available in tomatoes and is a powerful antioxidant.

(iii) Fish, such as sardines, are regularly consumed and they are rich in Omega 3 oils which have been found to be beneficial to cardiac function. Those partaking in the Mediterranean diet, that live close to the sea rely on the bounty of the sea for much of their meat intake.

(iv) Wine in moderation. Red wine is drunk throughout the Mediterranean region, particularly at meal time and in moderation. Red wine in particular is rich in certain health promoting compounds (flavonoids and phytonutrients) which are powerful antioxidants and have a role to play in lowering cardiovascular disease states.

(v) A combined effect. In the paper sited below, the researchers found that no single component or food group singularly provided any significant health protection and the authors concluded that it is in-fact the combination of all the different elements of the diet coupled with the more relaxed approach to life, plenty of sunshine and more physical activity that contributes to the improved health status of those lucky enough to live in this beautiful part of the world.

The take home message for you, the triathlete – forget the nonsensical high protein, low carb dietary regimens, forget trying to eat like Nathan Pritikin – all carbs and no fats – eat like the traditional Italians (particularly from the south) and Greeks. If you’re training hard, up the volume of food from all food groups but in particular the cereal, fruit, vegetable and legume component of the diet – they are rich in energy giving carbohydrates. Above all, enjoy your food, train smart and enjoy life, or as the Italians say, “La Dolca Vita” (the sweet life) – after all the research is in and your life depends on it.

http://oldwayspt.org/resources/heritage-pyramids/mediterranean-diet-pyramid

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

Reference:

  1. Trichopoulou A. et al: Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and survival in a Greek population. New England Journal of Medicine 348: 2599-2608, 2003.