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The MED diet: why it matters all year round

  • Food
  • 22.02.24
Words Waitrose 22/02/24

You may not be jetting off to the Med any time soon, but there’s no reason why you can’t eat as if you were there already – and reap the health benefits. With its emphasis on plant foods, the Mediterranean diet provides countless valuable nutrients to help fight winter ailments, not to mention improve your mood. Where to start? There’s no single, strict version of this diet – it’s more about putting a whole-hearted emphasis on eating fresh veg, fruit, nuts, legumes and whole grains, as well as olive oil, fish and red wine in moderation. It also encourages the limiting of red meat, processed foods and sugar.

Because it’s associated with holidays, a Mediterranean-style diet is often thought of as a summer thing, but follow it all year round and you will bolster your defences against seasonal colds, coughs and sore throats. One study of 128 young children who had suffered from recurrent colds found that 53% experienced no colds for a year after adopting this way of eating. These protective benefits are thought to be down to the diet’s high content of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (protective plant compounds).

The Mediterranean diet can also be a useful ally against the misery that colder days can cause in the form of low mood and fatigue. “With the risk of mental-health issues increasing in winter, it pays to nourish our gut-brain axis, the two-way communication between the gut and the brain,” explains dietitian Dr Megan Rossi, founder of The Gut Health Clinic in London. “Following the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fibre and plant diversity, can improve mood through supporting the communication between the gut and the brain. Simply put, plants have the power to improve resilience to stress and help to regulate our emotions.”

Research supports this thinking. A systematic review conducted in 2020 compared the effect of different eating patterns on people’s quality of life and how much people felt their health affected their overall well-being. It found that the Med diet came out top for health and happiness. The more closely people followed this way of eating, the better their health-related quality of life score.

In 2017, the Australian ‘SMILES’ trial, published in BMC Medicine, showed that adopting a Mediterranean diet may actually improve the mental health of people living with depression. In this study, participants were split into two groups at random. In the ‘dietary support’ group, participants received personalised eating recommendations based on the Mediterranean diet. Those in the ‘social support’ group had regular meetings with trained personnel to discuss topics of interest such as sport or music, but no input about diet. After 12 weeks, of the 56 individuals who completed the course, those in the dietary support group showed a significant improvement in their mental health: 32% were in remission from their depression, compared to 8% of those in the social support group.

Why? New research has shown that eating in this veg-forward way can positively influence the gut microbiota, the community of trillions of microorganisms that live in the gut. Dr Federica Amati is a medical scientist and nutritionist at ZOE, the personalised nutrition company. “At ZOE, we analysed the diet of all our members and found that those who were eating a range of different plant foods, including whole grains, nuts and seeds, alongside healthy animal foods such as fish (similar to the Mediterranean diet), were more likely to have a healthier gut microbiome score,” she says. The diversity of gut microbes is believed to result in increased feelings of well-being.

Luckily, many foods espoused by the Mediterranean diet are widely available year-round, so it’s easy to add that all-important plant variety to your diet. “The higher the number of different plant-based foods you eat, typically the more diverse your gut bacteria. It is this diversity that is linked to better gut and overall health, including better heart, skin and brain health,” says Dr Rossi.

Eating Mediterranean-style during the winter months doesn’t have to mean cold salads, either. Some vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, spinach and carrots, are actually more nutritious when cooked. Roasting tomatoes releases lycopene, an antioxidant linked to improved heart health and protection against certain cancers. Bolstering your defences, improving gut health, boosting mood and well-being… they’re all delicious benefits to cooking and eating Mediterranean-style.

Food 30.01.24

Shocking-pink forced rhubarb’s arrival on the culinary scene is a joyful antidote to February days. Although often considered fruit (we’re looking at you, crumble), these vibrant stems officially count as veg, lending themselves artfully to savoury cooking. Rhubarb makes for a fine, sharp pickle or a tangy counterpoint to oily fish and rich stews. High in fibre and antioxidants, it’s as nutritious as it is flavourful. Look for firm stems, rinse well, then trim both ends, removing any leaves (which are toxic). Cut stems into similar-sized pieces to aid even cooking”

Five ways with rhubarb Read more

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