Health: How a taste of the Med could be the key to health

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Health experts are urging us to eat more like we do on hols. Lisa Salmon reports.

Mediterranean-style eating has long been thought of as healthy – and now even mainstream medics are singing its praises.

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that a diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, beans, wholegrains, nuts and olive oil - all key characteristics of Mediterranean cuisine - could make a significant difference in reducing the risk of illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Recently, leading UK doctors collectively wrote to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt urging that the Mediterranean diet is given much more priority in the UK.

Cambridge GP Dr Simon Poole, one of the organisers of the letter, says: “With Alzheimer’s cases expected to rise threefold over the next 30 years, and diet and lifestyle clearly dramatically reducing the risk of developing dementia, we feel there’s compelling evidence for more investment in education and health promotion around healthy diet and lifestyle.”

Dr Poole, who runs a non-commercial website to promote the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, explains that the benefits of the diet are linked to it being ‘high protection/low damage’.

This means it contains relatively small quantities of undesirable saturated fats, but high amounts of vitamin, mineral and antioxidant-packed fruits, vegetables, olive oil and fish oils.

“It’s a balance of polyunsaturates, high monounsaturates in the form of olive oil, low saturated fat because red meat is only consumed once every three or four weeks, and low glycaemic index carbohydrates,” he said.

“And instead of being boiled out of vegetables, vitamins are absorbed into the olive oil as part of the cooking process.

“It’s a sophisticated relationship between all these foods and the way they’re prepared, and eaten slowly.”

Dr Poole points out that the prevalence of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes has historically been significantly lower in Mediterranean countries. This general trend has been confirmed in numerous studies, linking it with the diet of the region.

So why aren’t we all eating Mediterranean?

There are several barriers that prevent many Britons from doing so, Dr Poole believes.

“It involves cooking from scratch and [using] natural, unprocessed ingredients, but we’re in a culture of buy-one-get-one-free and there are more likely to be reductions on unhealthy products than there are on healthy products,” he says.

He suggests that people who feel unable to overhaul their diet completely can simply introduce a few Mediterranean-inspired tweaks instead.

He adds: “The way we deal with illness in this country is effectively to wait for it to happen, and then rely on pharmaceutical companies to produce a pill to sort it out.

“It should be about how we can remain healthy in the first place. But, of course, you can’t put the Mediterranean diet in a pill.”