Mediterranean diet 101: healthy eating for healthy ageing

Sarah Coleman dives in to explain the holistic and science-backed health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, a flexible eating style that has proven health benefits for all ages, but especially for people over 50.

By Sarah Coleman

What is the Mediterranean diet?

 The Mediterranean diet is a catch-all term used to describe a delicious and nutritious eating style that’s been shown to help manage weight, protect your heart, and prevent diabetes.

It is based on the traditional eating patterns of people living near the Mediterranean Sea in the early 1960s, particularly in areas such as southern Italy, Greece, and the island of Crete.

The hallmarks of the Mediterranean diet are:

●     Virgin and extra virgin olive oil are major sources of fat.

●     High amounts of minimally processed plant foods, both fresh and seasonal - fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.

●     Moderate amounts of fish and poultry.

●     Moderate fermented dairy products, mainly yoghurt and cheeses.

●     Around 4 eggs are eaten weekly.

●     Moderate consumption of red wine with meals.

●     Red meat, high-fat dairy products and highly processed foods are eaten rarely.

Along with everyday movement and social connectedness, these dietary principles work to promote healthy ageing of the gut, and body in general.

Dietitians and the World Health Organization endorse the Mediterranean diet

The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet are well-documented, including positive impacts on longevity, cardiovascular health, cancer risk, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes.

The exact mechanisms behind these benefits remain a subject of ongoing research, but it's likely the synergy of wholesome foods, rather than a single superfood, that makes the difference. 

The Mediterranean diet has been endorsed by the World Health Organization as a sustainable and wholesome dietary pattern for those seeking healthier eating choices.

Dietitians Australia also give the Mediterranean diet the thumbs up, recommending people:

●     Eat 5-6 serves of vegetables each day.

●     Use extra virgin olive oil as your main cooking and dressing oil.

●     Each week, replace a meat-based meal with one containing legumes like lentils, chickpeas or kidney beans.

●     Aim to eat oily fish at least twice a week such as wild-caught salmon, tuna, mackerel or herring.

●     Enjoy fresh or dried fruit each day.

It’s basically about eating lots of fruits, vegetables and legumes but also embracing the social and cultural elements of the Mediterranean area that include things like:

●     communal meals,

●     leisurely dining,

●     and post-meal siestas.  

These cultural and lifestyle habits of the Mediterranean diet are said to foster social bonds and reduce stress, which may also contribute to the health benefits.

A sample daily menu from a Mediterranean diet eating plan

The idea of this diet is that it’s flexible and easy to adapt to what’s available near you.

The Mediterranean diet isn't just about what you eat but also what you avoid or consume sparingly.

This means NOT eating:

●     highly processed foods - especially ultra-processed foods

●     refined grains, sugary drinks like bottled fruit juices and soft drinks

●     foods with added sugars

●     and processed meats like salami or bacon, which the World Health Organization has declared as a known carcinogen.

Incorporating the Mediterranean lifestyle alongside the diet involves regular physical activity, communal dining experiences, and stress management.

A sample daily food menu for people eating to a Mediterranean diet eating style might look like this:

           Breakfast: Greek yogurtwith berries  orbanana and rawunsaltednuts.

           Lunch: A wholegrain bread sandwich filled with hummus and salad ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers.

           Dinner: Fish (canned or fresh) paired with a leafy green salad, canned beans, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, followed by a fruit salad for dessert.

Citro’s healthy recipes developed by nutritionist Faye James also tend to follow the Mediterranean diet principles, including:

●  Spiced chick pea and vegetable fritters

●  Lentil and pumpkin curry

●  Chickpea tagine

●  Black bean and sweet potato burritos

●  Plant-based shepherd’s pie

●  Speedy prawn pasta

●  No-cheese cheesy pasta

You can also read how to grow your own nutritious microgreens at home and how to grow your own vegetables.

The over-50’s gut and its microbiome loves the Mediterranean diet

Getting older affects our digestive system in many ways. Our bodies make fewer digestive enzymes, which are essential for breaking down food into nutrients we can absorb.

The gut surface through which we absorb these nutrients can also weaken, allowing larger compounds to pass through, causing inflammation in the gut and other parts of the body.

Also, food moves more slowly through our gut, leading to problems like discomfort, constipation and reduced nutrient absorption.

On top of this, the diversity of microbes that live in our gut (called our gut microbiome) decreases, raising the possibility of an imbalance between beneficial and harmful microbes.

Recent studies suggest that the loss of gut microbes is more closely related to frailty as you age than to your chronological age.

What we choose to eat has an impact on the health and diversity of microbes in the gut, which in turn has an effect on our health. The gut microbiome is associated with nearly all diet-related chronic diseases, suggesting that it links what we eat with our susceptibility to disease.

The bonus: Mediterranean eating also nourishes your gut

Although the Mediterranean diet works as a whole to boost the health of your gut and general wellbeing, there are standout factors:

Fibre: the high fibre content of minimally processed plant foods "feeds" the beneficial microbes in our gut microbiome. It promotes the growth of their populations and the production of short chain fatty acids, which provide energy to the cells lining your gut as well as other health benefits throughout the body. Fibre also aids in the smooth passage of food and waste through your gut.

Polyphenols are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals found in abundance in many plant-based foods (notably red wine!) in the Mediterranean diet. They also help boost the diversity of microbes in your gut and maintain the integrity of the cells that line your gut.

Healthy fats: foods high in healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil and small oily fish (e.g., sardines and mackerel), are eaten every day in the Mediterranean diet. They help decrease inflammation in your body and increase beneficial populations of microbes in your gut 

Probiotic foods: fermented foods such as dairy (yoghurt and cheese.) and vegetables are sources of healthy probiotic microbes that can help restore balance to your gut microbiome, promoting the health and growth of beneficial microbes.

A holistic approach that supports your gut microbiome

The Mediterranean diet promotes health and reduces the risk of disease by altering the gut microbiome and supporting gut integrity, which in turn improves overall health and slows the ageing processes in the body.

Having said that, it is important that you make dietary changes that are comfortable for you.

You can gain inspiration from the "blue zones", regions of the world where people live longer than average, and their traditional eating patterns.

As we age, so does our gut, which can impact our quality of life. Luckily, we can take steps to change our lifestyle and foods we eat, promoting healthy ageing from the inside out.

What do you think of the Mediterranean diet?

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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