Welcome everyone Sandra in Spain - FlamencoI’m Sandra Piddock, and I’m a freelance writer, dividing my time between Spain and the UK. I’ll write about anything that interests and/or challenges me, and I like to focus on the lighter side of life whenever possible.. Read more
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Mediterranean Diet

Making the Mediterranean Diet easy on yourself

You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean Diet, but you may not be clear on how it works, and why.  Here in Spain, where olive oil is king and fresh fruit and vegetables are plentiful, cheap and in season, following this healthy eating plan is easy and economical.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

It’s a traditional way of eating, and it’s been a nutritional model for hundreds of years in Southern Europe. Mediterranean-style eating will increase your health and fitness, help to combat chronic disease, and help you lose weight.Globally, medical professionals and nutritionists consider the Mediterranean Diet to be one of the healthiest eating plans around.  And it also happens to be filling and flavourful.

The Mediterranean Diet is a bit of a misnomer, because it isn’t really a diet at all – it’s more like a permanent lifestyle turnaround in attitudes to cooking and eating. At its core are lots fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. There is no room for processed foods or deep fried stuff in the Mediterranean Diet.

Health benefits

The many advantages of adopting the Mediterranean Diet were acknowledged a couple of generations ago. Researchers in the late 1940s found that the natives of Crete were blessed with healthier than average cardiovascular systems, after managing for years on a restricted diet due to wartime food shortages.  This was put down to eating mainly fresh, seasonal produce. Meat was in short supply, and processed foods pretty much non-existent

More recently, it’s been demonstrated that people eating the Mediterranean way live longer, more active, healthier lives. They also have less chance of developing chronic conditions likes heart disease, diabetes and cancer. At 82.5 years, Spain now enjoys the longest average life expectancy in the whole of Europe.

The Mediterranean Diet can help you to live a  longer, healthier life. It’s rich in antioxidants, which serve to inhibit oxidative stress, thereby halving the risk of developing  Parkinson’s Disease.

A pivotal requirement of Mediterranean-style eating is regular servings of fish. The Omega-3 oils in tuna and sardines boost brain health, so the likelihood of contracting Alzheimer’s Disease in later life is also reduced.

The Mediterranean Diet is high in fibre, thanks to the fresh fruit and vegetables, and fibreevens out the body’s blood sugar levels and boosts insulin sensitivity.  This ‘two for one’  health benefit minimises the chance of diabetes. Refined carbohydrates and red meat only figure on the menu occasionally, so saturated fat content is automatically restricted. This, in turn, makes for a healthy heart.

The Mediterranean Diet in action

Mediterranean menus are built around plant foods. Fruits and vegetables are headliners, and so are chick peas, lentils and beans. Nuts and seeds are supporting actors, with whole grains, rice and pasta making up the chorus and filling in the gaps in the action.

The good folks who call the Mediterranean home region always eat seasonal fruit and vegetables, so the vitamin content is at its peak, delivering a full antioxidant hit. In many cases, salad comes before the main course. This takes the edge off the appetite, so you’re more likely to take smaller portions of the main meal, and also eat more slowly.

There’s not much space for red meat in Mediterranean eating. The main protein sources are poultry, fish and eggs, with the occasional steak. Beans and pulses supply plant protein, with many Spanish recipes including chickpeas or alubias (white, kidney-shaped beans). Fish is  grilled, poached, baked, or shallow fried in light batter.

Some Mediterranean nationalities – notably the Spanish and the Italians –really enjoy cured hams and sausages. These products are naturally cured, and contain no chemicals. Therefore they can’t really be considered processed foods.

Herbs and spices, rather than are salt, are the main flavourings for Mediterranean recipes, and butter is only used occasionally. Mediterranean people prefer their bread served with olive oil, garlic mayonnaise, or tomato paste. These are all healthier than butter, with no saturated fat and fewer calories per serving.

On the Mediterranean Diet, wine is fine in moderation. Spirits are an occasional treat – wine and beer goes down better with the lighter way of eating. Alcohol is automatically restricted, as it’s customary to drink with food,, rather than just for the sake of drinking.

The Mediterranean lifestyle 

It’s not just the food that makes the Mediterranean Diet healthy – lifestyle is another factor. Life is for living outdoors, with no stress and no rushing around.  It’s too hot for that, and Mediterranean people are more laid back than their Northern European counterparts. 

When Mediterranean people go home after work, they dine on fresh food, cooked from scratch. They’re happy to spend two hours or more seated at table, savouring the food and chatting between courses. This leisurely approach to eating naturally reduces the intake of food.

It’s roughly 20 minutes until the brain gets the signal that the stomach is full. This is the down to the actions of the hormonal system in which neurotransmitters also play a part. If you bolt down food or eat on the hoof, these signals won’t kick in to curb your appetite. Mediterranean of eating allows plenty of time for the brain to register the ‘full’ feeling.  

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest eating plans in the world. It’s built around high consumption of plant foods, low fat proteins from fish, eggs and poultry, and smaller servings of saturated fats and processed foods. Eating this way minimises the risks of contracting various lifestyle diseases. If you need to lose weight, it’s low in calories and fat, and high in fibre and filling power.

The Mediterranean way of eating is varied, wholesome and healthy. Combined with a low stress lifestyle and a good dose of vitamin D from the sun, it’s no wonder health professionals consider the Mediterranean Diet one of the healthiest eating plans ever.

You should try my Estofado de garbanzos y patatas recipe for a delicious winter warmer.

Fighting internal inflammation the Spanish way

Luscious strawberries -  Nature's natural pharmacy

Luscious strawberries – Nature’s natural pharmacy

Everybody has to contend with inflammation at some point. It’s the body’s natural response to trauma or injury, and the area affected will be hot, swollen and red, as well as painful,. That’s down to two factors: the release of white blood cells, containing chemicals to protect the scene of the crime, and increased blood flow to the area due to the automatic response of the immune system to any perceived threat to the body.

Inflammation may be acute or chronic, and it can also affect the internal organs. Internal inflammation contributes to a number of chronic, life-limiting illnesses, including diabetes, asthma, arthritis and coronary heart disease. Poor lifestyle choices and excessive stress can set off an internal inflammatory response, which is invariably chronic, or long term.

The single most significant factor in chronic inflammation is diet – you absolutely are what you eat. If you put junk into your body, rubbishy things will happen inside you. Regular overeating can also trigger an inflammatory response, and habitually taking in more calories than your body needs messes around with the immune system, thereby hampering any attempts by your body to fight inflammation.

I have Lupus – it was a deciding factor in moving from divine but damp Devon to the healthy climate of the salt lakes of the Costa Blanca, and I battle chronic inflammation on a regular basis. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I can’t take any sort of anti-inflammatory medication. However, in the years since I moved here, I’ve discovered that I can control my internal inflammation naturally, just by rocking up at the local market on a regular basis.

Anti-inflammatory diets are mostly based around the Mediterranean Diet, and that’s acknowledged by health and nutrition experts to be just about the healthiest diet going. It’s also the way we eat here in Spain, so there’s plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean meat and fish, as well as lots of fibre and healthy complex carbohydrates.

Now here’s the science bit – those with a low boredom threshold might want to skip this. Fruits and vegetables are brimming with lots of antioxidants which combat inflammation. That’s flavenoids and carotenoids to you. Here’s a tip – brightly coloured stuff has the highest antioxidant content. It looks prettier on the plate too, but maybe that’s just me being whimsical.

All plant-based foods contain different, naturally occurring phytochemicals, and the People Who Know believe these help to control chronic inflammation. Okay, phytochemicals like lycopene in tomatoes, or flavenoids in fruits are not essential, and you won’t die if you don’t get them. However, they do help to protect plants from disease, and it appears that they can also do the same for humans when it comes to internal damage due to oxidation and those pesky free radicals we keep hearing about.

So, what’s the market got to do with it? Well, that’s where I get all my anti-inflammatory medication, in the form of fresh, in season produce that’s picked ready to eat, so the flavour is perfect and the vitamin and nutrient content is at its best. If you buy Spanish strawberries in England, they won’t taste the same as mine from my local market, because they’ll have been picked before they’re ready to eat, then shipped in cold storage. Not only will you be disappointed with the flavour, you won’t get the full antioxidant hit either.

I’ve highlighted strawberries because not only are they my favourite fruit, they are also just about the best anti-inflammatory food going. The latest research concludes that eating 3 – 4 bowls of strawberries a week has the same anti-inflammatory effects as taking COX inhibiting medication. That does fancy things with enzymes in the body to help reduce inflammation, but it is also a no-no for people with hypertension or a history of heart disease in the family, as it can cause strokes and other nasty side effects. I might be wrong here, but I never heard of anyone getting a stroke through eating strawberries!

It’s not just strawberries either. At the time of writing – (late May) – the cherries, blueberries and apricots are piled high on the stalls, and there are avocadoes a-plenty to be had. Sweet potatoes (boniatos) are also looking good. Try one baked with tuna and home-made coleslaw for lunch. Those lovely pointy sweetheart cabbages make great coleslaw, and you can get three or four for a Euro. Or knock up a fabulous anti-inflammatory curry with sweet potatoes, chick peas and turmeric powder.  This versatile spice also has many other health benefits.

Google ‘Anti-inflammatory foods,’ then head down to your local mercadillo to fill your trolley. It may take a while to notice a significant difference, but I find that I hardly ever need to take pain killers now, and the only lifestyle change I’ve made is switching to an anti-inflammatory diet. Give it a try – you have nothing to lose, and great new taste experiences to gain!

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