Mediterranean Magic in the Indian kitchen


Registered dietician Shruti Maheshwari, shares the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and gives tips which can be easily incorporated in your kitchen, in an interview with Payal Shah.

"The body is like a piano, and happiness is like music. It is needful to have the instrument in good order"- Henry Ward Beecher

The food you eat helps you keep this instrument, your body, in tune. The Mediterranean diet is perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways to attain this harmony.

It incorporates the basics of healthy eating and gives enough space to fruits, vegetables and lots of green leafy affairs, apart from a drip of flavourful olive oil and perhaps a glass or two of red wine – among other components characterising the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Interestingly, several cuisines have crossed their geographical borders to reach the subcontinent, for their flavour, spices, aroma and not to forget their qualities to tickle our taste buds. Above all, the Mediterranean diet stands apart because it gives you the perfect blend of taste, appeal and nutritional benefits. Most healthy diets include fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limit unhealthy fats. While these parts of a healthy diet remain tried-and-true, subtle variations or differences in proportions of certain foods may make a difference if you try the Mediterranean ways to control your Diabetes.

An ideal Mediterranean diet

Now when we say 'diet', we don't suggest that you starve yourself or stick to some rigorous template. What we know as a Mediterranean diet is a centuries-old inclusive package of a natural healthy lifestyle, a balance of culture and nature practiced by locals living along the Mediterranean coast, who enjoy delightful rich meals in leisurely ways along with physical activity. Actually there is no single meal that defines it to be Mediterranean; every region along the coast has its own diet based on fresh and locally available food. The basics of the diet include plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and nuts. Moderate amounts of dairy product like yoghurt and cheese, fish, poultry and eggs are also always included. Regular use of olive oil is encouraged. Red meat and sweets are restricted to a few times a month.

Restrained consumption of red wine (one glass per day for women, and two per day for men) is normal. Most Indians and non-drinkers can opt for purple grape juice, but again moderation is a key.

The good health package

In an article in WebMd, Kathleen Zelman claims that a Mediterranean eating plan "can help protect against heart disease, Diabetes, cancer and even help with weight loss". The Mediterranean diet is considered to play a role in the prevention of Diabetes, perhaps delaying its onset, for improving glycemic control and for aiding in decreasing the morbidity and mortality related to Cardiovascular diseases among diabetics.

The diet has also demonstrated to improve many cardiovascular risk factors and inflammation markers among diabetics. Several clinical trials have shown that the Mediterranean diet can help lose weight and shows improvement in controlling cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood sugars – all the traits associated with the Metabolic Syndrome. It also protects us from chronic diseases, lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease, reduces bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol apart from your longevity.

Adapting to Indian ways

The principles of Mediterranean diet can be easily incorporated into our Indian kitchen without taxing the wallet or compromising on taste. It is easy to follow and gives us the flexibility of cooking with locally available ingredients.

Mediterranean diet stresses on eating lots of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals or whole grains, and beans. Combine more and more colour in your meals. Do not overcook – try having as much of the food raw as you can, like salads, fruit and nuts. Go easy on the salt.

As per Indian cooking, our whole grains can be whole wheat flour, jowar, bajara or ragi, whole grain bread, oats, porridge, or milk cereals. Go for seasonal foods – in winter pick oranges, carrots, peas; while in summers opt for watermelons and mangoes.

Snack on whole fruit and fresh vegetables as salads. Consume lots of bhaaji/subzi. Add green leafy vegetables in the dough or make stuffed vegetable parathas – you can try roasting the paratha without oil, or use very little olive oil on a non-stick tawa. It could also be done with whole grain upma, poha, dalia, oats with capsicum, onion, tomatoes and boiled peas. Even idli can be sautéd with vegetables and you can add assorted vegetables to dosa filling and topping on uttapam.

While eating out, ask for a whole wheat pizza with extra vegetables and light on cheese. Replace white rice with brown rice. There is lot of room to incorporate the above foods items.

Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils, which are unhealthy fats present in ghee, butter; coconut oil rather encourages good fat like olive oil and nuts. A traditional Mediterranean diet also emphasises on additional daily serving of mixed nuts. You can eat a handful of raw or roasted nuts as a snack. Try to avoid honey or sugar coated nuts, chikkies, mithai like badam or kaju rolls as they just provide empty calories.

Legumes, which almost all Indian kitchens pile on, are also an integral part of Mediterranean diet. They are an excellent source of vegetarian low-fat protein, and good substitute over meat. Replace your paneer/cheese with Tofu (soyabean paneer).

Our requirement of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids could be met by consuming fish in moderate amount. Seafood and fish are recommended to be consumed often or at least twice a week. Try to boil, bake or grill them. Skinless poultry, eggs, low fat cheese and low fat curd could be consumed in a small portion every day.

Help for Diabetes

The ingredients and cooking style in Mediterranean diet helps keep the glycaemic index of food relatively low. This diet by its design helps blood pressure and improves cholesterol. Intelligent adaptation of the Mediterranean dietary pattern along with physical activity can help attain better blood glucose control and would be able to prevent and delay the onset of new diseases. The best part is that this diet is more sustainable as it offers a balanced meal, a lot of flexibility, and most of the recommendations are the ones you will enjoy to follow. You are always more likely to keep going on a diet that you enjoy eating. Moreover, you don't need to stock up on exotic ingredients, so you basically have no excuses for cheating on your diet plan. A Mediterranean diet has both components- good healthy eating habits along with physical activity-essential keys to weight loss.

Counting the benefits

There is no one single component of the Mediterranean diet to recommend it. It is the overall eating pattern and lifestyle which favours the high intake of antioxidant beta-carotenes, vitamins C and E, polyphenols and various other vitamins and minerals, unsaturated fat, and many more nutrients along with physical activity that yields overall health benefits.

Few reasons that could be pointed out for health benefits are listed below.

Firstly, it accentuates on consuming more plant based food in a minimally processed manner, which provides lots of fibre that regulates blood sugar and renders a satiety value, also avoiding risk factors for many diseases including Diabetes.

Secondly, the focus is on the kind of fat source (olive oil, nuts and fish) in a Mediterranean diet, which are considered good fat (monounsaturated fatty acids(MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA)) which are associated with cardio protective health benefits, like lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), total cholesterol, and triglyceride, thus avoiding over eating.

Nutritional package of nuts in the diet cannot be overlooked. They are high in antioxidants property, high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals, and high dietary fibre. Nuts, low on gluten are also beneficial for people, who have lactose intolerance or have gluten allergy.

Mediterranean diet is also beneficial for controlling blood pressure as it focuses on the healthier unsaturated fats, high consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain- the components of a DASH diet (diet for hypertensive people).

It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammtory effects which protect us against several pathologies like Cardio Vascular Diseases and cancer. Red wine also has health benefits due to the presence of polyphenol, which increases good cholesterol, has an antiplatelet effect, and reduces inflammatory markers. However it does not mean that you start drinking alcohol if you don't, instead you can reap similar benefits from grapes.

Diabetes Health Magazine