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Striving for a traditional Mediterranean diet is a great way to achieve optimal health because of its nutrient dense, socially feasible and fairly economical dietary recommendations.

There are many studies to prove the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in reducing risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. A stroke, if not fatal, can have devastating consequences, all of which rapidly reduce quality of life and an increased health care burden. Type 2 diabetes, if not well managed, is associated with long term complications that may lead to unnecessary end of life suffering.

Based on whole plant foods with a splash of plant oils eaten together with moderate portions of lean protein, a Mediterranean style diet is packed with all the goodness we need for optimal functioning of the body. The human body has 11 major organ systems, each of which are fueled by energy and use varying combinations of vitamins and minerals. Consuming a variety foods is essential for the support of the organ systems which keep us alive.

The circulatory system is responsible for the transport of nutrients, oxygen, carbon dioxide, wastes, electrolytes and hormones throughout the body, effectively interacting directly with every other organ system. The digestive system delivers nutrients into the blood stream for transport. Supplying adequate nutrition reduces the risk for the development of vitamin or mineral deficiencies which can disturb the equilibrium of the functioning of the body and result in various symptoms and disease conditions.

Literally taking a leaf from the populations eating a true Mediterranean diet can promote health with limited compromise to dietary diversity, social activities and food budgeting.  One of the best things about Mediterranean eating is that it is easy to adhere to when eating at restaurants or entertaining friends. The options are many and the limitations are few!

What is a Mediterranean Diet?

When reading food labels, the ingredients of any product are listed in descending order of mass, meaning that the ingredient listed first is the dominant ingredient. Putting a label on a Mediterranean diet, in a South African context, would read something like this:

Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, whole grain products (minimally processed), fish, ostrich, chicken, pork (unsmoked), eggs, red meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, nut butters, olives, avocados, plant oils. 

Nuts, seeds and plant oils are listed at the end, not because they are bad but because they are very energy dense. Small portions are sufficient.

Healthy cooking methods are essential to preparing these foods for maximum nutrient quality. The following tips will help you to optimize the nutrient quality of family meals:

  • Cook vegetables in minimal water or none at all. Steaming and roasting prevent nutrient losses.
  • Include raw salads as starters of lunch box fillers
  • Include fruit in meals and snacks
  • Use fresh or dried herbs and salt free spices to make meals tasty
  • Leave the skin on potatoes
  • Extend meat dishes by adding legumes such as lentils or butter beans
  • Choose high fibre starches, limiting highly refined grains and low fibre grain products
  • Add plain yoghurt to dishes instead of cream
  • Use low fat, unsweetened dairy products
  • Avoid deep frying any foods in large volumes of oil
  • Avoid highly processed cheese (eg. cheese slices or spreads)
  • Avoid cooking or baking with hard margarine (bricks)
  • Limit processed and smoked meat products

If snacks are required to stabilize blood sugar levels, keep hunger at bay, support the demands of physical activity or supply adequate nutrients for growing children, the following options are advised:

  • Baby carrots with hummus
  • Fresh fruit
  • A closed handful of unsalted nuts
  • Plain yoghurt
  • Apple wedges with peanut butter
  • Green apple slaw

Green Apple Slaw = grated apple, shredded cabbage, plain yoghurt with a little mayonnaise for tang

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