Doctors urging Britain to stay healthy with the cure on a plate

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Mediterranean diets have long been hailed by dieticians, but now mainstream medics are singing their praises. Grace Hammond reports.

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean diet could make a significant difference in cutting heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia rates in the UK.

Just recently, leading UK doctors collectively wrote to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, urging more priority be given to encouraging people to switch to a Mediterranean diet in the UK. Sent just before December’s G8 summit on dementia, the letter pointed out that a Mediterranean diet is “possibly the best strategy currently available for tackling dementia”.

The thinking is that, rather than waiting until health problems arise, Brits need to be encouraged to prevent illness more, with eating well being a key component.

Dr Simon Poole, one of the organisers of the letter, says: “We’re beginning to understand why all the elements in the Mediterranean diet come together. It’s a balance of polyunsaturates, high monounsaturates in the form of olive oil, low saturated fat because red meat is only consumed once every three or four weeks, and low glycaemic index carbohydrates.

“And instead of being boiled out of vegetables, vitamins are absorbed into the olive oil as part of the cooking process. It’s a sophisticated relationship between all these foods and the way they’re prepared, and eaten slowly.”

Dr Poole points out that the prevalence of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes has historically been significantly lower in Mediterranean countries, like Greece and southern Italy, than in the UK.

So why aren’t we all eating Mediterranean?

“It involves cooking from scratch and [using] natural, unprocessed ingredients, but we’re in a culture of buy-one-get-one-free and there are more likely to be reductions on unhealthy products than there are on healthy products,” adds Dr Poole. “Our culture seems to resist the idea of educating our youngsters to really enjoy and celebrate healthy eating, which is a great sadness.”

“The way we deal with illness in this country is effectively to wait for it to happen, and then rely on pharmaceutical companies to produce a pill to sort it out.It should be about how we can remain healthy in the first place. But, of course, you can’t put the Mediterranean diet in a pill.”

British Dietetic Association spokesperson Sioned Quirke is another supporter of the Mediterranean diet.

“It’s definitely worth encouraging people to make at least one simple change towards Mediterranean eating,” says Quirke. “People know they should have five pieces of fruit and veg a day, but I don’t think they realise the extent to which it can benefit us.

“It’s not just the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, we know that they help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease too.”

Quirke advises people to ‘eat the rainbow’ – in other words, to eat as many different coloured fruit and vegetables as possible, as each colour contains different vitamin and mineral contents. Though there’s no need to cut out meat completely, some of it could be replaced with beans or lentils, she suggests, as they’re a good source of protein but don’t contain saturated fat.

“Nobody’s perfect, but if you make at least one practical Mediterranean-type change to your diet, it will benefit your health,” she promises.