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Eat Continental and live longer

It’s a myth that the Continental Diet means joylessly sacrificing the foods you love, says Graham Sherwood

As each summer comes around and we eventually migrate back to lighter, healthier foods away from the comfort-eating pies, puddings and casseroles of the colder months, the term Mediterranean or Continental Diet can be heard being bandied around, as frequently as the songs of the summer birds that also return to our shores each year.

Sadly, as a result of increasing obesity in the western world, the word ‘diet’ has become embedded into our lexicon to mean a strict regime of eating in order to lose weight, as opposed to its real meaning as a description of our most commonly consumed foods, healthy or not. So the Continental Diet for some people conjures up an austere reduction in many of the foods they love and are loath to give up, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The Continental Diet is a heart-healthy way of eating that includes the food staples of people who live in the region around the Mediterranean Sea, such as France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Croatia. There can be no coincidence that two of the five globally recognised ‘blue zones’ where human longevity is greatest can be found around the Mediterranean Region in Sardinia (Italy) and Icaria (Greece). These places are known for having some of the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer worldwide.

There are so many traditional cuisines from the countries that qualify as observers of the Continental Diet that the term can mean different things to different people. In general, it is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil, while it usually includes a lower intake of meat and some dairy foods.

So how difficult is it to become more Continental in our eating habits? Well, for a start, the Mediterranean diet has never been perceived as a weight loss plan. In fact, it was never developed as an eating regime at all, being merely an evolved style of eating across a region of people that occurred naturally over centuries. There is simply no official way to follow it, but it remains popular because it’s a well-rounded approach to eating that isn’t too restrictive.

If we have the desire to do so, we can make our diet more Mediterranean by eating plenty of starchy foods, such as good rustic-styles of bread and the best quality pasta we can afford. Unfortunately, in our supermarkets both of these food categories often contain a considerable range of cheaper poorer quality product which should be avoided. Don’t forget, in the Mediterranean region these items would typically be handmade artisan products, more often than not made at home.

Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is a much easier proposition and is often where our supermarkets excel, in both range and price. The biggest hurdle here is allowing ourselves to be more adventurous and try out recipes that include more of the continental ingredients like aubergines, artichokes, celeriac, chicory, okra, peppers, olives and garlic which are now more readily available.

A significant food resource around the Mediterranean is obviously fish, which many of us can attest to after visiting the incredible fresh food markets while on holiday in the region. Including more fish in our regular diet and reducing the amount of meat we eat, particularly red meat, is far more difficult in the UK as fishmongers are few and far between and supermarket fish displays seem both expensive and appear to be centred mostly on farmed salmon, smoked haddock and cod.

“There’s emerging evidence which suggests that eating in the style of the Mediterranean diet may offer protective effects for those with, and at risk of, type 2 diabetes”

On the health side of things, there is emerging evidence which suggests that eating in the style of the Mediterranean diet may offer protective effects for those with, and at risk of, type 2 diabetes.

For instance, Mediterranean eating improves blood sugar control in those already diagnosed with the condition, suggesting it can be a good way to manage the disease. What’s more, according to a respected medical paper published in 2014, given those with diabetes are at increased odds for cardiovascular disease, adopting this diet may help improve heart health too.

Frequently, people on a Mediterranean routine eat about nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Their plates groan under the weight of colourful produce, which pack an array of disease-fighting antioxidants into their daily food intake.

There is little room left for processed fare, and traditional proteins, meat poultry and fish, are often relegated as side dishes.

Something else people find to love about the Mediterranean diet is the allowance of moderate amounts of red wine, typically one glass for women and no more than two glasses for men. While I am sure these notional amounts are not stuck to religiously, it is a fact that consumption of wine ‘with food’ is greater on the Continent than in the UK, where it is not uncommon to drink socially without food being present.

In essence, the whole cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is one’s family, one’s friends and the overall social aspect of consuming a meal in the company of others, where the food, while vitally important to life itself, doesn’t appear to be the main talking point. It does need noting, however, that many of the older generation in these seemingly idyllic climes do remain physically active long after many Britons have hung up their aprons. They retain smallholdings and/or small patches of vineyard to tend, in order both to keep fit and of course as a source of inexpensive produce.

So it’s hard to calibrate just how much following a Mediterranean diet contributes to your health, compared with the hard work that goes into producing the ingredients that make it. I would suggest they both go hand in hand.

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