Tuck in like a Mediterranean and live longer

While diet in some sunnier shores may be changing, the original regional foodstuffs are a recipe for better health

Despite the cultural differences between Moroccans, French, Greek and others living around the Mediterranean basin, they shared a traditional diet with many common characteristics some 70 years ago. There was an abundance of vegetables; fruits; spices; seafood; breads; cereal foods usually made from wheat, nuts, and olive oil; and wine with meals.

"He is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines. He walks to work daily and labours in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land . . . His midday, main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from grazing in thyme-filled pastures. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savoury cuisine . . . His is the lowest heart-attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the western world."

The description above of the "low-coronary-risk male" living on the isle of Crete, in the aftermath of the second World War appeared in the Seven Countries Study, which focused the world's attention on the traditional Mediterranean diet.

To determine the protective component of the diet, isolated nutrients have been studied in large, well-designed, randomised clinical trials, typically with null effects. It appears this focus on nutrients rather than foods is counterproductive.


The traditional Mediterranean diet is considered somewhat of a paradox. Although fat consumption was high, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer was lower than other European countries. Rather than limiting total fat intake, the diet focused on healthier fats.

On the menu were monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts and avocados and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish. If you were to follow this diet today, limiting your intake of processed and packaged foods ensures a better balance of fats and a lower intake of the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.

In a meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal, which included more than 1.5 million participants, the researchers found greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet resulted in significant improvements to health, including a 9 per cent drop in overall mortality, a 9 per cent drop in mortality from cardiovascular disease, 6 per cent reduction in incidence of or mortality from neoplasm, and a 13 per cent fall in Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Unfortunately, the food and meal patterns of these Mediterranean countries have changed over the years. In Crete, for example, people consume less fruit and olive oil. They also eat more meat today, including processed meats. Low rates of heart disease are no longer prevalent.

A weekly Mediterranean-style shopping list has few processed foods, but is big on colour and flavour. It might include:

Shellfish: clams, crab, lobster, mussels, scallops and shrimp.

Fish: anchovies, halibut, salmon, sardines, bream, sole, tilapia, trout, tuna and swordfish.

Fruit: citrus, berries, cherries, dates, figs, grapes, melons, apples, peaches, pears and pomegranates.

Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, avocados, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, courgette, carrots, celery, corn, aubergines, fennel, green beans, green leafy vegetables, olives, onions, potatoes, radishes, squash and tomatoes.

Grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, kamut, oatmeal, polenta, quinoa, wheat berries, whole grains, stone-ground breads, tortillas and pasta.

Nuts: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnut, pecans, pine nuts and pistachios.

Seeds: sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and linseed.

Legumes: cannelloni beans, borlotti beans, fava beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans and split peas.

Herbs and spices (fresh or dried): basil, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, fennel seed, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, pepper (black or red), rosemary, saffron, sage, tarragon and thyme,

Dairy products: natural yoghurt, lower-fat cheeses like feta, mozzarella, brie, camembert and goat.

Oils: rapeseed, extra-virgin olive, grapeseed, and sesame oil.

Eggs: chicken and duck eggs weekly.

Balsamic vinegar.

Red meat (only 1-3 times monthly).


Combine the protein from the lentils with lycopene from the tomato to make this easy-peasy winter warming soup.

Red lentil and tomato soup
Serves 4

1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 can of chopped tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Little pinch of sugar (optional)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 small garlic cloves, crushed
2 celery sticks, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp red chilli flakes
140g red lentils
1 litre vegetable stock. If very thick add a little more stock.

1. Sweat the onion, garlic and celery in a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of oil and some seasoning for 6-8 minutes until soft. Sprinkle over the cumin and cayenne pepper and sauté and stir for 1-2 minutes to cook out the spices.
2. Add tomatoes with a pinch of sugar.
3. Stir in the lentils, then pour in the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Cook over a high heat for 10 minutes, then lower to a gentle simmer for about 20-30 minutes until the lentils are soft.
4. Remove the pan from the heat, cool the soup slightly, then blend until smooth.
5. Return to the heat to warm through gently and check for seasoning.

Salad of mixed beans, wild rice and beetroot, with lemon and chilli marinated chicken escalope

Mark Doe's recipe is big on fibre and heart-friendly vitamin E.
Serves 4

For the chicken
2 chicken fillets, skinless
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
Small pinch of dried chilli flakes
Juice from ½ lemon
1 garlic clove, finely chopped

For the salad
6 dessertspoons cooked chickpeas
6 dessertspoons cooked kidney beans
6 dessertspoons cooked butter beans
100g cooked green beans
50g cooked wild rice
160g cooked beetroot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Black pepper

1. Cut each fillet in half lengthways and place between 2 sheets of cling film.
2. Lightly bat the chicken out with a rolling pin so that you have 4 thin pieces .
3. In a bowl, mix the oil, chilli flakes, lemon juice and garlic. Add the chicken to the bowl and coat with the marinade. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes before cooking.
4. Now make the salad by mixing all the ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside.
5. Cook the chicken on a chargrill pan or barbecue for 2 -3 minutes on each side until cooked through. The key is not to have the grill so hot that it blackens the meat.
6. Serve with the bean salad.

Paula Mee is a dietitian and member of the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institution. indi.pmee@medfit.ie or tweet paulamarymee