Popular British meals for colder months, like shepherd's pie, meat curries and roast beef and Yorkshire pud are not inherently unhealthy, of course, especially when cooked at home from scratch using fresh ingredients. The core component of many of these dishes is red meat, however, which is a major source of saturated fat in the British diet.
A diet high in saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of developing serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease. According to Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, “There can be some health benefits to including lean red meat in the diet, but too much may not be beneficial to health."
Another major source of saturated fat in the British diet is processed meat products like bacon, hot dogs and ham. The World Cancer Research Fund says scientists estimate that 10 per cent of bowel cancer cases in the UK could be prevented if we all restricted our consumption of processed meat to less than 70g a week (roughly equivalent to three rashers of bacon).
Health benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet
In stark contrast to the typical diet in the UK, the Mediterranean-style diet has a high ratio of 'good' monounsaturated fat to saturated fat. The Med-style diet is low in red meat, processed meat products and dairy products, and high in cereals, legumes, and foods rich in monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, fish, and nuts and seeds.
There is now a substantial body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of adhering to a Mediterranean-style diet in terms of good health and longevity. A team from the University of Florence in Italy recently reviewed the evidence from previous studies that have investigated the health effects of the Med-style diet. In all, these studies involved 1.5 million participants.
The review team found convincing evidence that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fish can protect against risk of dying from or developing illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
According to the NHS Knowledge Service, the University of Florence review "provides strong evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce the risk of major chronic diseases".
Med-style eating in the UK
The good news is that we don't have to throw away our cookbooks or abandon all our favourite meals to adapt our diet to Med-style healthier eating. The Med-style diet includes plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables, and an important start to adapting our own diet is to ensure we eat a variety of fruit and veg, says nutritionist Sarah Schenker.
"Aim to eat a different combination each day and choose a range of colours," she says. "Include green leafy vegetables, white vegetables, orange root vegetables, deep-coloured berries, and yellow, white and orange fleshed fruit."
While our locally grown produce may not stretch to the sun-ripened grapes, oranges and olives of the Mediterranean, any fruit and veg in season can readily be adapted for use in Med-style meals, such as tomato-based sauces for pasta or vegetables roasted in olive oil.
Cooked tomatoes and purees are an integral part of Mediterranean cuisine, says Sarah, who stresses that the way we cook our food is an important part of getting the most nutrients from it. "Once tomatoes are processed and then cooked in a little oil, they release more carotenoids, which act as antioxidants in the body, protecting it against cell damage."
For green vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, Sarah recommends that we lightly steam rather than boil them. "That way, fewer of the vitamins will be destroyed."
More tips for Med-style cooking and eating
Here are some more suggestions from Sarah on ways to incorporate healthier Med-style influences into our everyday diet:
- All forms of fruit and vegetables counts towards your 5-A-Day and make a valuable contribution to your nutrient intake. Try dried fruit as a snack between meals, use leftover fruit and vegetables to make smoothies and soups, add plenty of vegetables and salads to main dishes, and finish meals with chopped fresh fruit for dessert, instead of creamy or stodgy puddings.
- Include plenty of foods rich in monounsaturates, which can help improve heart health and reduce inflammation. This means swapping oils and margarines made from corn or sunflower oils for olive oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil-based spreads. Add olive oil to salads and include foods such as nuts, avocados and olives.
- Oily fish form a central part of Mediterranean eating. They are a rich source of omega 3 polyunsaturated fats, which can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and inflammation, and keep blood and joints healthy. Oily fish include mackerel, sardines, herring, fresh tuna, salmon, trout and snapper. Girls and women of child-bearing age or who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not eat more than two portions of oily fish a week. Older women, boys and men can eat up to four portions a week. Omega 3-enriched eggs or fish oil supplements are useful for those who do not like oily fish.
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A few Mediterranean-style recipes from our website…
Pesto chicken with roasted tomatoes
Sardines with chickpeas and tomatoes
Classic Italian salad
Spaghetti with sardines and orange
Mediterranean fish stew with garlic ciabatta
Slow roasted winter vegetables
Mediterranean vegetable lasagne
Seabass with ratatouille
Mediterranean macaroni cheese
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