A guide to the main ingredients and flavourings of the Mediterranean diet including recipes.

mediterranean diet
Not only is the Mediterranean diet one of the most exciting, inventive and appetizing diets in the world, it is also one of the healthiest, according to many experts. Statistics show that there are 1/3 fewer sufferers of cancer in the Mediterranean than in the US, which many experts believe is diet-related.

Unfortunately the Mediterranean diet has been overlooked for many years, but now dieticians, doctors and health professionals recommend that for a better quality of life and a healthier lifestyle, we should follow the eating habits of those that consume a traditional Mediterranean diet.

Although obesity is becoming a growing problem in a number of Mediterranean countries, probably due to the outside influence of fast-food restaurants and a less active lifestyle, those that still adhere to the traditional cooking styles of this region, will most definitely live longer and also suffer less from chronic illnesses, even much later on in life.
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Less risk of heart disease

Studies have shown that although people from countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece consume relatively large amounts of fat in their diet, there is still a very low incidence of cardiovascular and heart disease.

This is basically due to the type of fat that is consumed.

Whereas our typical diet is full of saturated fats, found in convenience products such as chips, cakes, biscuits, cheese, butter, margarine and fried foods, the Mediterranean's consume large amounts of "good" fats or monounsaturated fats, which are actually beneficial to our health.

Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, in particular, nuts and oily fish, all of which feature highly in the Mediterranean diet.

No to saturated fats

Saturated fats are not good for our health and consuming too much of this type of fat will lead to heart disease and other types of cardiovascular illnesses.

Saturated fats actually raise the levels of cholesterol in our blood and too much cholesterol will lead to a fatty substance deposited on our artery walls. In time, the walls will become clogged with these fatty deposits if they are not cleared away, restricting blood flow, raising blood pressure and possibly causing a heart attack or stroke. For more information on saturated fats and cholesterol, see our guide to dietary fats in our guide to nutrition section.

Olive oil

One of the main constituents of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil. Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fat, which is a "good" fat that raises the levels of "good" cholesterol.

In fact, monounsaturated fats clear away and lower the levels of "bad" cholesterol and "bad" fat from the body. Olive oil is also said to lower blood pressure and sugar levels in the blood and protect the heart.

Olive oil is used on a daily basis in certain Mediterranean countries and in practically every meal of the day.

Bread or toast is liberally drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and rubbed with a clove of garlic, even for breakfast; salads are tossed in an olive oil and vinegar dressing and omelettes are gently fried in a small amount of olive oil in the frying pan.

More fish, less red meat

Fish is eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean and more so in areas that are situated on the coast and in warmer climates. Many towns by the sea were originally fishing villages and fresh fish and seafood were abundant and cheap to buy.

Oily fish are particularly beneficial to one's health, as they contain plenty of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which protect the heart and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Grilled sardines and whitebait are popular in most Mediterranean countries and are often sold in beach bars, restaurants and huts.

Although oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, herring and mackerel are thought to be the healthiest, eating fish and seafood in general, is a healthier option than a diet full of only red meat.

Other popular fish and seafood choices in the Mediterranean are mussels, crab, shrimp, red mullet, squid, swordfish and sea bass.

Red meat is not as popular in the Mediterranean as it perhaps is in other European countries, which many experts believe is one of the main reasons that there is less incidence of heart disease here.

Healthy grains and pulses

Red meat in the Mediterranean diet is often replaced by other protein-rich foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and other pulses.

In the Mediterranean, salads, soups, dips and other types of dishes are often made with pulses and fresh vegetables.

Bread

Bread is often eaten at every meal in the Mediterranean, however, rather than serving it spread full with butter, which is high in saturated fats, and other unhealthy fillings; in the Mediterranean region, bread is usually eaten on its own or drizzled with olive oil. It is served as an accompaniment to a meal and is eaten in moderation.

Grains, rice and pasta are also more popular in the Mediterranean than in other countries around the world. Contrary to what many people believe, pasta and other carbohydrates are not particularly fattening. They provide us with energy and fuel the body and should make up a large proportion of our daily diet.

It is actually the sauces that are served with pasta dishes that contain the calories and the fat. For a healthier option, go for tomato-based pasta sauces rather than cream-based sauces.

An abundance of fruit and vegetables

In countries such as the UK and America, many people struggle to eat the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. In the Mediterranean, on the other hand, vegetables are a part of every meal and fruit is often eaten afterwards or as a snack.

Most people serve a fresh green salad with each meal and melon is popular as a starter or a dessert.

Vegetarian dishes are also more popular than in other countries, where this type of food is considered for dieting women or carrot-munching hippies only.

A diet that is full of fresh fruit and vegetables is linked to lower levels of cancer and heart disease. Fresh fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are often not found in other types of foods.

Vegetables such as aubergines, courgettes, peas, green beans, sweet potato, asparagus and cauliflower are often made into main meals, which are eaten in place of potatoes.

Red wine

Alcohol in moderation is thought to be good for the health, as it is said to reduce the risk of heart disease by keeping the blood thin and preventing it from clotting. This is especially true for red wine, which also contains antioxidants and actually raises the level of "good" cholesterol in our body. Red wine is of course made from grapes, which are known to contain powerful antioxidants.

Wine is often served with lunch and the evening meal also, but maybe only one or two small glasses are consumed.

Excessive drinking is dangerous. It can raise your blood pressure, weaken the heart and permanently damage the liver amongst a number of other things. In the Mediterranean, alcohol is usually respected and is sometimes a component of a main meal, as well as an accompaniment.
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In the Mediterranean region people seem to have more time for cooking and for eating. Meals are often huge family gatherings that take place over several hours, after which a siesta is taken.

Good food is important here and the people naturally eat and enjoy foods that are good for them.

Simple foods with simple ingredients and simple recipes are often the best and most favoured by young and old from many generations.

For a taste of the Mediterranean in your home, take a look at and prepare some of our Mediterranean recipes below.

Mediterranean Recipes

A selection of healthy Mediterranean recipes using ingredients such as olive oil, fresh vegetables, tomatoes, garlic, seafood and herbs. Recipes include Andalucian Gazpacho, spaghetti with clam sauce and Greek Feta cheese salad.

Gazpacho

Gazpacho is a refreshing vegetable soup from Andalucia, Southern Spain, which is prepared in a blender and served cold. It is often garnished with chopped onion, cucumber, croutons and occasionally hard-boiled egg.

Ingredients
  • 4 oz (115 g) of fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
  • 3 large very ripe tomatoes
  • 1 small red pepper
  • 1 small green pepper
  • ½ cucumber
  • ½ onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 tbsp of wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • ¼ tsp of ground cumin
  • ¼ - ½ litre of water
To garnish (optional)
  • croutons
  • diced cucumber
  • finely diced onion

Method
  1. Immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and peel away the skin.
  2. Chop the tomatoes and place into a blender or food processor.
  3. Wash and peel the cucumber. Roughly chop and add to the blender.
  4. Wash the peppers, deseed them and also cut into pieces. Add to the blender.
  5. Chop the onion and the cloves of garlic. Add to the blender.
  6. Process the vegetables until a purée is formed.
  7. Pass through a sieve and return to the blender.
  8. Add the breadcrumbs.
  9. With the blender running slowly pour in the olive oil and process for 30 seconds.
  10. Add the vinegar, salt and cumin.
  11. Pour in a little water at a time and blend, adding water and blending until the desired consistency is achieved.
  12. Check the seasoning and add any extra salt or vinegar accordingly.
  13. Transfer the gazpacho to a container and chill in the refrigerator until required.
  14. Serve in individual soup bowl and top with any or all of the above garnishes.

Feta Cheese Salad

This refreshing and colourful salad has many of the classic ingredients of the Mediterranean. Serve with freshly baked warm crusty bread.

Ingredients (Serves 4)
  • 7 oz (200 g) pack of Feta cheese
  • 3½ oz (100 g) of lettuce leaves
  • 3½ oz (100 g) of pitted black olives
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • ½ small red pepper
  • ½ small green pepper
  • ½ onion
  • handful of freshly chopped basil leaves
  • For the dressing
  • 3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp of red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp of freshly chopped parsley
  • salt and pepper

Method
  1. Wash the lettuce, drain and roughly chop or shred. Place into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Chop the peppers into small pieces and finely dice the onion. Add to the lettuce.
  3. Halve the cherry tomatoes and add to the bowl with the olives.
  4. Cut the cheese into small chunks and add.
  5. Mix all of the ingredients together.
  6. Put all of the ingredients for the dressing into a jar with a screw-top lid.
  7. Close the jar with the lid and shake until all of the ingredients have blended together.
  8. Pour over the salad and toss well.
  9. Serve as a starter, side salad or main meal.

Spaghetti alle Vognole (Spaghetti with clams)

This delicious seafood pasta dish can be prepared with fresh clams or mussels if preferred. Serve with a side salad and fresh crusty bread.

Ingredients (Serves 4)
  • 2.2 lb (1 kg) of fresh clams or mussels
  • 1 lb (455 g) of fresh plum tomatoes
  • 3½ fl oz (100 ml) of dry white wine
  • 1½ oz (40 g) of butter
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 5 tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp of freshly chopped oregano
  • salt and pepper
  • spaghetti for 4 people
Method
  1. Rinse the fresh clams in cold water and scrub the shells with a brush. Discard any open clams. Leave the clams to soak in cold water for 10 minutes, rinse and drain. Set aside.
  2. Prepare a bowl of boiling water and add the tomatoes. Leave for 30 seconds then drain and rinse under cold water. Remove the skin from the tomatoes and discard.
  3. Roughly chop the tomatoes with a sharp knife.
  4. Bring a large pan of water to the boil (for the spaghetti).
  5. At the same time heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, peel and finely chop the garlic.
  6. Add the garlic to the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes over a medium heat, stirring constantly so that the garlic does not burn.
  7. Add the chopped tomatoes and the white wine and stir all of the ingredients together.
  8. Carefully add the clams and season with the salt and pepper.
  9. Cover the pan with a lid and gently steam the clams until they open up. This should take about 3 minutes.
  10. At the same time, add the spaghetti to the pan of boiling water and cook until al dente (7 - 8 minutes). Drain well.
  11. Add the chopped oregano to the clam sauce and stir well.
  12. Add the pasta to the frying pan and mix with the sauce.
  13. Add the chopped parsley and the butter. Cook for 1 minute, tossing the pasta with the sauce.
  14. Remove the pan from the heat and serve immediately.
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