Let’s go Mediterranean! – October newsletter

I’ve just returned from a much needed fabulous two week holiday. Feeling recharged and rejuvenated and ready to go again! Having travelled extensively throughout Asia in my twenties, there are still many parts of Europe that I’ve never clapped eyes on, so this year I thought… Greece it is, and I’ve completely fallen in love with the place and now wonder why I’d never gone before. I hate long haul flights but it only took six hours to get me from my house to my terrace with a view that would touch the hardest of souls!

I’m sure most of you have visited but hopefully I can highlight my nutritional stance on the outstanding food and benefits of the Mediterranean Diet! It is particularly good for those of you who suffer food intolerances. The fewest, freshest ingredients are cooked in the simplest way, with an abundance of olive oil, feta and haloumi cheese and of course outstanding fish. As nutritionists and lovers of food we often look to southern Europe to emulate one of the worlds most healthy diets, known also for helping prevent many of our western diseases. So this months newsletter is about the Mediterranean Diet and lifestyle. Enjoy!

What exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?

Well, its more than a diet for starters. It is a lifelong lifestyle. Years ago it was the natural way of life for people living around the Mediterranean basin, especially in Spain, Italy and Greece in the 1960’s. A combination of high activity, nutrition and a low level of stress shaped an entire way of life for many people. Although circumstances have changed slightly, people are still keeping and returning to this way of life and it has certainly infiltrated the rest of the world.

The diet is one of the best ways to prevent many diseases like strokes, heart attacks, metabolic syndrome (too much fat around the waist, high blood pressure and/or insulin levels and unbalanced levels of cholesterol) and helps in the prevention of lung disease, asthma, many allergies, parkinsons, alzheimers and also helps in keeping bone mass in the elderly. In recent times we have also seen lower incidences of most cancers in areas where this lifestyle is still at large.

What do people eat?

Originally the Mediterranean diet consisted of the following:

Virgin olive oil
Vegetables, fruits and legumes
Non refined carbohydrates
Milk, cheese and yoghurt (the original cheese was fresh goat cheese)
Fish, especially oily – three or four times a week
Three or four eggs a week
Moderate consumption of meat and saturated fats
One or two small glasses of wine a day – preferably red and at main meals
Very little smoking

You can see that this way of eating has no hydrgenated products, no trans fats and very little white sugar, but has an abundance of olive oil. If you asked most people what is eaten in the Mediterranean Diet, usually the first answer is olive oil.

Why is olive oil so good for me?

Olive oil is particularly characteristic of the diet. It contains high levels of monounsaturated fat, including oleic acid, which studies have shown reduce the incidence of heart disease. The antioxidants in olive oil also improve cholesterol regulation in paticular lowering LDL cholesterol. It was only really in the 1990’s that this diet came to light and gained widespread recognition. This is due to the data that started coming out about the health benefits – by then nearly thirty years worth. The health benefits of olive oil date back to Hippocrates. It has been used to maintain muscle and skin suppleness, heal abrasions and soothe the burning and drying effect of sun and water. Most olive oil is 80% monounsaturated, 14% saturated and 6% polyunsaturated fat. It is rich in vitamin A, B1, B2, C, D, E and K and iron. It does however contain as many calories as other oils. It can act as a mild laxative and can aid in the discomfort of ulcers and gastritis.There are three kinds of dietary fats: saturated (animal), polyunsaturated (plants, seeds, nuts, vegetable oils), and monounsaturated (olive oil). Olive oil has been regarded as the “beauty oil”. The body’s cells incorporate the valuable fatty acids from the oil, making arteries more supple and skin more lustrous. The amount of oleic acid in olive oil is similar to that found in a mother’s milk and is therefore the best growth supplement for infants. I don’t suggest you do this but drunk before a meal, olive oil protects the stomach from ulcers. If a spoon or two is taken with lemon or coffee, it prevents constipation without irritating the intestinal tract. It is also effective in treating urinary tract infections and gall bladder problems.

It is a perfect remedy for gastritis in children, it accelerates brain development and strengthens the bones. Olive oil can dissolve clots in capillaries, has been found to lower the degree of absorption of edible fats, and consequently slows down the aging process. Olive oil is also cholesterol-free, although cholesterol is not entirely harmful as it is an essential building block for cell membranes, nerve fibre coverings, vitamin D and sex hormones. The body manufactures all the cholesterol it needs, so any cholesterol in foods we eat is excessive. Excess cholesterol causes a gradual accumulation of fatty deposits and connective tissue, known as plaque, along the walls of blood vessels. Eventually, plaque builds up, narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow, in this way increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

What’s special about Crete?

There is a particular greek island that has been studied more than any other with regards to their food and nutrition – Crete.

Following scientific research and statistical analysis, the Cretan nutrition and diet has been proven to promote health and longevity. It consists almost exclusively of products that the people of Crete produce naturally. Products that only the island of Crete and its ideal climatic conditions can offer. It is not only the taste and quality of the products in Crete but also their combination which gives enormous nutritional value.

A comparative study among several developed countries, which began in 1960 on behalf of seven countries had a group of 700 Cretan men from the country under medical observation. Checking the state of their health – so far this group has had the lowest percentage of deaths caused by heart attacks and different kinds of cancer. This study has also shown the Cretan population to be the longest living. In 1991 thirty years after one study began, The University of Crete undertook a medical checkup of the group, and 50% were found to be still alive as apposed to the rest of the six countries where there wasn’t a single survivor.

Drinking fabulous rose wine and eating great food makes you feel great! The wine in Greece was lovely – no hangover! It felt and tasted cleaner, less additives as did all the food. Greece is financially going through a really tough time at the moment (another reason to visit) and there is simply no money for pesticides or herbicides so most of the produce is as it should be and tastes as it should be.

One of the chefs that has taken this on and embraced this way of cooking is Jamie Oliver. If you look at his programmes and recipe books, its clean, simple,organic where possible with loads of olive oil, garlic, herbs and very few ingredients. There is no fiddling and messing around with rich sauces. Fundamentally you dont need to hide good ingredients. You most certainly need to hide bad ingredients though! If you buy good ingredients in the first place you really dont need to do that much to the food. We are so used to buying food with the ingredients box looking like something from a chemistry A level exam that our taste buds have forgotten the joys of simplicity.

What about all the sun – surely thats got to be bad?

So what about all this sun, surely the rates of skin cancer must be higher? Interestingly though residents of the Mediterranean are also observed to have very low rates of skin cancer and the incidence of melanomas is lower than in northern Europe and significantly lower then in other countries like Australia and New Zealand.

Could it be then that the diet is proving to be the very protection needed against such cancer? It has been shown that UVB synthesis of vitamin D in the oils of the skin has been observed to reduce the incidence of heart disease. Can an anti cancer diet prevent skin cancer despite the high temperatures and tans? I think it possibly can. That is not of course to say that frying in the sun in the UK is going to make you live longer but we have become very scared of getting out into the light and the sun. Vitamin D levels in the UK are at a low not seen for many years. Vitamin D protects us from the flu and swine flu, so do get out into the light and sun as much as you can. This summer has been pretty poor but we are getting clear skies and sun at the minute so get out there an enjoy yourselves!

The history of the siesta

The spanish word siesta is a short nap taken after a midday meal, usually in the early afternoon in countries where the weather is particularly warm. It’s traditionally from Spain and through the Spanish influence has travelled to most latin american countries. At the peak of the midday sun and after food there can be a feeling of post lunch drowsiness and a siesta is commonplace in Greece. The original concept of the siesta seems to be a midday break intended for people to spend time with their friends and family and avoid the often unbearable midday sun, when the sun is at its highest point and the UV is also at its peak. Obviously the work day is structured differently and people will often work much later so for example the average 9-5pm here would be 8 to 2 pm- then 5 to 8pm. It would be alien to us to work like that but my friends who have lived in countries that have siesta time have remarked how less stressed they are and how much more energy they have but I suspect it depends on what you are used to.

The timing of sleep in humans depends upon the balance between the need for sleep since the last adequate sleep episode and your circadian rhythms which determine the ideal time for restorative sleep. The homeostatic pressure to sleep starts growing upon waking and the circadian signal for wakefulness starts building in the late afternoon. So in many people, there is a dip when the drive for sleep has been building for hours and the drive for wakefulness has not yet started. In some individuals a postprandial dip ie a brief drop in blood glucose levels caused by the body’s normal insulin response to a heavy meal, may produce drowsiness after the meal that can encourage a nap. However, the appearance of the dip is primarily circadian as it occurs also in the absence of the meal. In Serbia and Slovenia especially among older citizens it is common to observe the so-called “house rule”, requiring people to refrain from telephoning or visiting each other between 2-5pm, as people are supposed to be resting. As I’m writing this I’m thinking what a lovely idea! In some southern German-speaking regions, their siesta, the Mittagspause is still customary; shops close, and children are expected to play quietly indoors. In South Asia, the idea of a post lunch nap is common and in West Bengal the word bhat-ghum means rice sleep – their nap after lunch.

An afternoon sleep is also a common habit in China and in some Japanese offices they have special rooms known as napping rooms for their workers to take a nap during lunch break or after overtime work. In Islam, people are encouraged to take a nap between midday and afternoon prayers. In the US and the UK and a growing number of other countries, a short sleep has been referred to as a power nap. But by its very nature, this is a short sleep of up to an hour.

Have a super month and try and avoid those October bugs that are lurking!

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