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Doing the Mediterranean diet, South Asian style
Shirzad Chunara MHSc RD
Rahima Alani MD
15 February 2014
  • High in vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fruit, and fish, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a significant improvement in quality of life. Many South Asian foods work well with it, and some simple changes can help you incorporate the Mediterranean lifestyle into your daily living.

  • Choosing plenty of fruits and vegetables at the market provides a variety of fresh, healthy, delicious ingredients to choose from when making meals and snacks. Photo: MANGO STUDIOS Choosing plenty of fruits and vegetables at the market provides a variety of fresh, healthy, delicious ingredients to choose from when making meals and snacks. MANGO STUDIOS

    What if there were a way to eat delicious foods and reduce the risk of chronic illness? As luck would have it, there is!

    For more than 50 years, the Mediterranean diet has been the subject of intensive research. Studies associate it with a significant improvement in quality of life, a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, and decreased mortality from many chronic diseases.

    The Mediterranean diet represents the typical eating patterns of people who live in regions that border the Mediterranean Sea. Typically, it is high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil is an important source of fat in the Mediterranean region – in cooking, you may prefer to use rapeseed (canola) oil.

    Using fresh garlic, ginger, and herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, and oregano makes it easier to prepare great-tasting food, while reducing the need to use excess salt. Photo: MANGO STUDIOS Using fresh garlic, ginger, and herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, and oregano makes it easier to prepare great-tasting food, while reducing the need to use excess salt. MANGO STUDIOS

    Fish and poultry are more commonly eaten, whereas red meat is limited. Foods are flavoured with herbs and spices reducing the need for salt. Lower fat milk products such as yogurt are commonly consumed, as is 1½–2 litres of water every day.

    In addition, regular exercise is an important component of the Mediterranean lifestyle and is incorporated into daily living. Walking and cycling from one place to another, participating in gardening or other physical work are typical activities seen in this region.

    Can a South Asian lifestyle become more like the healthier Mediterranean one?

    Many common South Asian foods already fit the Mediterranean diet. Kachumber, for example, is made of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and vinegar, which are some of the same ingredients that are used to make a Greek salad. Fresh garlic, ginger, and onions are at the core of many dishes used by both traditions, as are lentils and beans.

    The Mediterranean diet is known for the use of fresh herbs such as parsley, coriander, oregano and fresh mint leaves to season foods, whereas the South Asian diet is known for using chilies, haldi (turmeric), limro (curry leaves). While the herbs vary somewhat, more important differences are that South Asian foods are typically fried, contain lots of added salt, and that desserts tend to be extra sweet.

    Try some simple changes that can help you incorporate the Mediterranean style of eating:

    • Rather than deep frying foods, grill, stir fry or bake them.
    • Choose olive or rapeseed (canola) oils instead of using ghee or butter in your cooking.
    • Choose ¼ cup (small handful) of unsalted roasted nuts for a satisfying snack. The natural fats and minerals found in nuts have been found to be “heart-healthy”, but don't overdo it.
    • Include at least two different vegetables in your main meal.
    • Serve whole grain brown rice or chapatti rather than white rice or naan.
    • Eat fish at least twice a week, and poultry and vegetarian meals more often.
    • Limit your consumption of red meat – some recent research suggests that it be eaten only a few times per month.
    • Chai may tempt you to eat more fried snacks, so try to cut back if you drink more than 2–3 cups a day. Also, try it with low fat milk and minimal sugar.
    • Consider replacing one cup of tea with a cup of warm low fat milk, flavoured with haldi or chai masala.
    • Choose water with sliced cucumbers or lemon rather than juice or soda.
    • When you crave something sweet, choose fresh fruit; leave the mithai for special occasions only.
    • When entertaining friends or family, in addition to sharing a healthy meal, partake in activities such as dancing, dandia, or bhangra.
    • Try growing your own healthy foods. Fruit, vegetables and herbs can make a beautiful garden and a cost-effective source of fresh, healthy ingredients.

    The Mediterranean diet and lifestyle is not a miracle cure. It is an approach that you can use to incorporate simple, plant-based eating into your life, which may help to reduce your incidence of chronic disease.

    Fortunately many foods eaten in traditional South Asian diets such as chana, tandoori chicken, and sambar fit easily with the Mediterranean style of eating. You don't have to give up traditional South Asian flavours – just learn how to savour foods found abundantly in nature, without drowning them in fats, sugar and salt.

    References and resources

    1. Ramón, Estruch, et al. “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.The New England Journal of Medicine, 368.14 (2013): 1279-1290.
    2. Sofi, F., et al. “Adherence to Mediterranean Diet and Health Status: Meta-analysis.British Medical Journal, 337 (2008): A1344.
    3. Mitrou, P. N., et al. “Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Prediction of All-Cause Mortality in a US Population: Results From the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.Archives of Internal Medicine, 167.22 (2007): 2461-468.
    4. P. Henríquez Sánchez, et al. “Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and quality of life in the SUN Project.European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012; 66(3): 360-8.