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If you are a fan of the Mediterranean diet (like me), get ready to do a victory dance! Despite the frequent back and forth about what to eat (or not eat), the Mediterranean diet has stood the test of time. This plant based diet has won the title of the 2019’s best overall diet in rankings announced at the beginning of January by US News and World Report, earning top spot for best diet for healthy eating, best plant based diet, best diet for diabetes (this is good news considering the rising number of diabetes in SA) and easiest diet to follow. To choose the best diet, several indicators were assessed: how easy is it to follow, its nutritional completeness, its ability to produce short and long term weight loss, its safety and its potential for preventing and managing diabetes and heart disease.

This is not surprising as plenty scientific studies have indicated that the diet can reduce risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, dementia, depression, Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer. The diet focuses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, dairy, fish and seeds with a few nuts and a heavy emphasis on olive oil – all really high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre which are all key components for reducing the risk for chronic disease. Let’s take a look at it in a bit more detail:

  1. Grains, veg and fruits are eaten at most meals. The majority of grains are consumed in their whole minimally processed form, including: wheat, oats, rye, barley and corn. These high fibre foods can increase how full we feel, and they tend to have a low glycemic index too (which is good news for our blood sugar levels!).

  2. Olives/olive oil is the main source of dietary fat used in cooking, baking and preparing salads and vegetables. It has a high smoke point and is full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties (like tocopherols, carotenoids and polyphenols).

  3. Nuts, beans, legumes and seeds are essential foods. Not only do they provide healthy fats, proteins and fibre to eat but they really amplify the flavour and texture in our dishes. They contribute great amounts of iron and zinc too!

  4. Herbs and spices are used liberally. This reduced the need for added salt and gives an extra boost of antioxidants in the diet.

  5. Cheese and yoghurt are eaten often in low to moderate amounts, which is quite important for bone and heart health.

  6. Fish and shellfish are important protein sources. Fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids like tuna, herring, sardines, salmon and shrimp are consumed frequently. Eggs are also included in the diet, which is a great high biological value protein. Meat is eaten in small portions, along with moderate portions of poultry.

  7. Wine (red, in particular, as it is high in resveratrol) is consumed often but in moderation, one serving for women and two servings for men. Who said diets cant be fun?

  8. Water is the number one beverage choice – essential for life and proper hydration!

  9. Daily physical activity is important. Choose exercises that make your heart beat faster like going for a swim, or a brisk walk or a bike ride.

For me the Mediterranean way of eating is more of a lifestyle than a diet. The beauty is that it’s based on an entire dietary pattern, not particular foods and nutrients. Synergism. Foods that work together with health benefits attached. That’s what I think of when I think of this diet. The most important thing in the diet is the relatively high amount of minimally processed foods (sweets and sugar), and really encourages an element of mindfulness. It is so simple to incorporate into our kitchens at home. It is based on preparing fresh, seasonal foods. Steam legumes with herbs and spices, sauté vegetables in olive oil with a splash of lemon juice, add beans to a soup or stew, toss some olives in your whole wheat pasta dish, snack on dried nuts and add fruits to cereals.

As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel through the Mediterranean region, I can confidently say their food is phenomenally tasty and healthy (and guilt free). I can’t wait to start incorporating more of these dietary principles in my own kitchen. What about you?

Shani

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