Mediterranean diet promotes a longer and healthier Life

Holidays are often seen as a time for indulgence and the Algarve offers visitors the best of both worlds; you can enjoy delicious local produce and try speciality dishes, yet much of the food served in this region is rich in nutrients and beneficial to health. Portugal may not have a Mediterranean coastline, but the traditional fare is similar to that of the Mediterranean diet popular in Spain, Italy and Greece.


Research indicates that following these dietary habits not only leads to a longer lifespan, but the risk of a range of chronic diseases is also reduced. Here we consider the elements of the Mediterranean diet and the health benefits that can be achieved.

Foods within the Mediterranean diet

In contrast to countries in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean diet contains a greater proportion of plant-based foods and meat intake is lower. An emphasis is placed on the inclusion of fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses (chickpeas and fava beans are especially used in the Algarve) and wholegrains; the latter includes wholemeal bread, brown rice and bulgur wheat. Nuts and seeds also make an appearance as ingredients within meals. Red meat is limited, with poultry and fish the preferred options for protein; fish and seafood are especially prevalent in the diet of the Algarve, with sardines, seabass and swordfish often served in restaurants alongside the popular Cataplana dish that contains shellfish. Eggs, cheese and yoghurt make an appearance within the diet for an additional source of animal protein, but are eaten in moderation. The principal type of fat used in the Mediterranean diet is olive oil and the preferred alcohol is wine, though the consumption of this is moderated.

A nutrient-dense diet

Owing to its high content of foods derived from plant sources, the Mediterranean diet is rich in both fibre and anti-oxidants; the presence of pulses also ensures that a high intake of both soluble and insoluble fibre is achieved. Not only is fibre needed to maintain the health of the digestive system, but soluble fibre is known to lower levels of total and harmful LDL cholesterol, high levels of which are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. There is also some evidence that this form of fibre is helpful for blood sugar control and may aid weight loss. Anti-oxidants include beta-carotene, vitamin C and E, which are abundant in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, and function to protect the body’s cells from damage; in doing so they are able to reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases. Selenium is another anti-oxidant, with seafood providing one of the richest sources, while wine and in particular red wine is rich in polyphenols.

Olive oil is high in mono-unsaturated fats, which research has demonstrated can help us to achieve more favourable cholesterol levels. This type of fat helps to lower LDL cholesterol, whilst maintaining levels of the protective HDL cholesterol and through this balance less cholesterol is deposited within the walls of the arteries; the anti-oxidants found in extra virgin olive oil also help to preserve the health of the blood vessels. Nuts and seeds are also rich in mono-unsaturates. Another beneficial fat within the Mediterranean diet is the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as sardines and tuna. While these have little impact on cholesterol levels, they help to lower the concentration of triglycerides in the blood, which otherwise increase the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce blood pressure, prevent blood clot formation and to stabilise the heart’s rhythm, all of which reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

Another benefit of this diet is that an emphasis is placed on freshly prepared foods, so processed foods make little appearance. As a result the salt content of the diet is lower. The use of herbs, garlic, black pepper and certain spices – in Portugal piri piri, cinnamon and saffron for instance – also reduces the need to use salt as flavouring. Consuming less salt is not only beneficial to blood pressure, but may also reduce the risk of osteoporosis and stomach cancer.

Chronic diseases are less likely

As the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, it is not surprising that there is evidence to suggest that by following this dietary pattern the risk of dying from heart disease is reduced; this is significant as in northern Europe this remains the biggest killer. Followers are also less likely to be obese or develop type two diabetes, which are growing in prevalence in more northerly countries. The risk of dementia is also lower when choosing a Mediterranean diet, which provides further weight to the argument that cognitive decline is influenced by lifestyle choices including diet. This diet additionally appears to offer protection against Parkinson’s disease, which is one of the most common conditions affecting the nervous system; the high anti-oxidant content of the diet is believed to preserve the integrity of nerve cells.

Finally, the risk of dying from cancer is also lower when those diagnosed with the condition have been following the Mediterranean diet. With so many benefits to be gained from this way of eating, perhaps your stay in the Algarve will inspire you to take some of the elements of the Mediterranean diet and incorporate them into your own eating habits.

Julie Turner
July 2013

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