You are what you eat, and the proof lies in the Mediterranean diet

This article was created for The Travel Project by Ginny Copestake

How long do you expect to live? Have you even given it much thought, or do you kind of just take it for granted that you’ll probably, hopefully, live to a ripe old age?

Mediterranean food is proof that a balanced diet is the way to go...

We all hope to live a long, healthy, happy life, yet for many of us we won’t get this desired outcome. Sure we’re living longer than we’ve ever lived, but are those years blessed with good health? Seemingly not. It’s estimated now that in the UK, 1 in 2 people will develop cancer in their lifetime, whilst in the States 1 in 3 deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease. Worldwide, heart disease and strokes are the No.1 and No.2 causes of death, according to the 2016 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update.

So what causes these diseases? Well of course there are a multitude of contributing factors – smoking, the amount of exercise you do, and economic factors all included. But one major player scientists all agree on, is diet.

Mediterranean Diet meat

As of 2015, it was estimated that 70% of American’s eat fast food three times a week, whilst 7% eat it on a daily basis. In the UK, the BBC Good Food Nation Survey revealed that most people eat fast food on average twice a week, whilst one in six young people eat fast food twice a day. TWICE A DAY. Those numbers are obscene. And that’s a growing trend. As more and more countries join the developing world, and people move from the countryside to the cities in search of better jobs and better pay, their diet takes a nose dive. In China, a country that has developed and grown at an exponential rate over the last 50 years, the share of the population suffering from Type 2 diabetes grew from less than 1% in 1980, to 10% in 2008.

And on a global scale, two billion people worldwide are now obese or overweight.

Burger

Diet and ill health are a direct correlation of one another, and it’s not hard to see why. The western diet typically includes high levels of saturated fats (like butter and red meats), low levels of fibre, refined grains, sugar and salt, all of which have been associated with development of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and a range of cancers. Couple that with a wide disinterest in physical activity, and it’s not hard to see the ticking time bomb. And it’s not just what we eat, it’s how we eat it. When was the last time you sat down with family or friends and ate your dinner at the dining table more than three nights in a row (without the television on), or ate your lunch away from your computer screen? I for one am guilty on both counts.

So what is the solution? Well cast your eyes to that rather gorgeous stretch of European coastline known as the Mediterranean, and you might just find your answer.

Mediterranean Diet

As of 2016, Italy was ranked tenth in the world for life expectancy, with the average person living to 82.2 years of age. The UK was ranked thirtieth, with an average life expectancy of 80.6, whilst the US was ranked a disappointing fifty third, with residents expected to live until they were, on average, 79 years of age.

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And the reason for this longer life expectancy? Well unsurprisingly, many put it down to diet. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and spices. The main type of fat is olive oil, whilst poultry and dairy products like cheese and yogurt and consumed in moderate amounts. Small amounts of red meat are eaten occasionally, whilst fish and seafood are eaten about twice a week. Overall the whole diet relies on fresh, seasonal food, meaning meals have lower amounts of fatty oils and higher amounts of fibre and other essential nutrients. So by combining high fibre, omega-3s (from nuts and fish) and unsaturated fats, and replacing salt with spices, cholesterol and blood pressure is markedly lower. Or in other words, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

And it’s not just about what people put in their mouths. People living this diet have a totally different attitude to food. Their portion sizes for one are significantly smaller than their western counterparts. Sure they eat pasta, but they’ll have a little bowl, and couple it with a fresh side salad. Plus, with Italians for example, their meals tend to go on for a longer period of time, sometimes even for hours, so their food is properly digested and they’re not overeating. I attended an Italian wedding this summer, during which there were 6 courses in total, consumed over perhaps 4 or 5 hours. And do you know how I felt afterwards? Hungry. Damn my western constitution.

Mediterranean lunch date

A study conducted earlier this year by the San Diego School of Medicine, in a remote little town called Acciaroli, near Salerno on Italy’s south western coastline, offers proof to the pudding. The town has a population of around 2000 people, 300 of whom are over the age of 100 and are not only physically, but mentally well. Yes, really. 300 centenarians living in a single village. So what’s the secret? Well of course this being a remote Italian town, the inhabitants have not only an abundance of gorgeous fresh air, but also lead physically active lives, walking or hiking through the mountains to get to the shops, work etc. But researches determined that the main reason for this incredible life span was the Mediterranean diet, which is followed religiously in the region. Plus, they also concluded that the use of rosemary, which was used commonly by the pensioners and is associated with memory boosting, circulation stimulation and pain relief (amongst other things) also attributed to their long, healthy lives.

Mediterranean seasoning

So OK, what do we do with this information? I know what you’re thinking – maybe something along the lines of ‘sure I’d love to eat a Mediterranean diet, but damn are those ingredients expensive’. And yes, you’d be correct. Yet a study (those scientists again) conducted by the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Barcelona, that followed 2181 Spanish men between the ages of 25-74, found that, probably unsurprisingly, increased spending on food really does lead to a significantly improved diet, and furthermore – and here’s the good news – it doesn’t have to cost the earth. They discovered that even spending just €1.4/day extra on food contributed to the study subjects eating 74 grams more of vegetables, and 52 grams more on fruit per day.

Turns out our parents were right – eating your greens (and your rosemary, olive oil, sea food, grains, seeds and spices) really are the best things for us, the proof lies in the Mediterranean.

We’ve partnered with professional foodie @food_feels as part of The Travel Project, tasking him with hunting down the very best dishes Italy has to offer (tough gig eh!), and exploring how food is integral to the entire travelling experience. Adventuring on Contiki’s Mediterranean Escape trip, check out his discoveries here.

Want to contribute your own story to The Travel Project? Find out how here.

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