Healthy eating in 2021: 5 tips to take from the Mediterranean diet
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet have long been known. Employed correctly, research has shown a link between its primarily plant-based ingredients and a decreased risk of heart disease, depression, and dementia.
And yet, recent reports suggest the current Italian trend for overindulging in the starch-rich elements of the diet, namely bread and pasta, is leading to an obesity crisis in Italian children.
So, what is the Mediterranean diet? Which bits are good for you? And which recipes can you make at home to enjoy a healthy start to 2021?
The Mediterranean diet means eating fresh and homegrown
TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have been using their celebrity status to tackle issues like childhood obesity for many years.
Eating less red meat, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and embracing the benefits of whole grains are all great ways to begin eating healthier.
All the above are key parts of the Mediterranean diet, meaning it might just be the perfect option for you.
Rich in fresh produce, fruit and vegetables, beans, whole grains, olive oil, and fish and poultry, it also contains little red or processed meat. Fresh, homegrown food is in, while preservatives and additives are out.
Some key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine – olives, for example – aren’t native to the UK, but that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace other fresh local produce to make your own versions of some Mediterranean classics.
Five ways to incorporate the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet into your cooking
1. Substitute olive oil into your diet
Olive oil is often seen as the star-ingredient of Mediterranean cooking. Research has evaluated its health benefits and it is often linked to increased average life expectancy in Mediterranean countries. It is thought to lower the chances of coronary heart disease too.
During his BBC programme, ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor,’ Michael Mosely looked at the health benefits of olive oil. Conducting an experiment with a group of volunteers, they found measures of coronary artery disease fell after just three weeks of taking 20 millilitres of olive oil a day.
It is very calorific though, so incorporate it into your diet in moderation. One way to do this is to use it as a substitute for another fat, by dipping bread in olive oil rather than buttering it, for example.
The Hairy Bikers are among a great number of celebrity chefs to provide their take on the Mediterranean diet. This great example of Italian ‘cucina povera’ (kitchen of the poor) is simple, flavoursome, packed with fresh vegetables and just a splash of olive oil.
Recipe idea: Hairy Bikers’ Stuffed Aubergine
2. Place vegetables centre-stage
The Meat Free Monday campaign began more than ten years ago with the backing of celebrity chefs like Ainsley Harriot and Jamie Oliver. This year, a record number of people signed up for the Veganuary challenge, managing to double the 250,000 that signed up just two years ago.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall believes vegetables should be at the heart of every meal and is on a mission to change our culinary culture. Here are a few of his tasty, meat-free recipes for children, including beetroot and walnut hummus and oven-roasted roots frittata.
Recipe idea: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Four vegetable-based dishes for children
3. Swap red meat for fish rich in omega-3
The Mediterranean diet swaps red meat for another source of protein that is plentiful in the region: fish. Try to eat a fish-based meal at least twice a week and always cook it in olive oil rather than butter.
Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring are high in omega-3, which can improve cholesterol levels. If you don’t like the fatty fish above, try shellfish. They contain slightly lower levels of omega-3 but are also a healthy option.
Swapping red and processed meats for fish and vegetables will be the basis for many of your meals if you opt for a Mediterranean diet this year.
Recipe idea: Gordon Ramsay Restaurants’ Lemon Sole
4. Switch to whole grains
Whole grains include whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, whole-grain bread, and pasta.
Jamie Oliver recommends buckwheat for its high protein and fibre content. It’s also low on the glycaemic index, which means you will feel full for longer.
Used often in Mediterranean cuisine, buckwheat is actually a fruit-seed. Use it as a rice substitute and you’ll be getting a gluten-free protein hit that’s just as easy to cook with and perfect in a range of meals, including salads rich in seasonal vegetables.
Recipe idea: Jamie Oliver’s Buckwheat, beetroot, and feta salad
5. Add duckweed for a ‘greener’ take on the Mediterranean diet
The Independent reported in November 2020 on a team of researchers studying the benefits of adding more vegetables and green tea to the ‘standard’ Mediterranean diet. They also added 100g of protein-rich duckweed called Mankai, not currently commercially available in the UK.
Over six months, the team found those on the ‘greener’ eating plan lost more weight and had improved metabolic health and cholesterol levels than those on the standard Mediterranean diet.
Higher quantities of plant matter, between three and four cups per day of green tea, and 100 grams of duckweed might be the key to unlocking even greater health benefits from the already-healthy plan.
It is currently classed as a ‘novel food’ in the EU, meaning more scientific research is needed to verify its health claims. However, it is widely available in the US and Israel, so duckweed protein shakes could well be arriving here soon.
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