There were a number of things that struck me about the eating (and drinking) patterns in the Mediterranean, including the following 10 observations:
1. Snacking was uncommon
I rarely observed anyone eating outside of main meal times. The main meals were generally substantial and nutritionally balanced, thereby supplying sufficient energy to sustain one until the next meal. I did not see anyone eating bags of chips, biscuits or muesli bars between meals; such foods were not displayed obviously at every turn of the head, as they are in Australia. The only foods I saw available between meals were fresh fruit, roasted nuts and roasted corn cobs. Highly nutritious options if you did happen to need an afternoon top-up.
Fruit stall in Barcelona, Spain
The cutest strawberry punnets in France
Nuts on sale in France
A street cart selling roast chestnuts and corn in Istanbul, Turkey
2. Coffee was consumed in small cups, sitting
Locals drank their coffee, unadulterated and appreciatively, in cafes, seemingly often in company. They were not sipping Grande Vanilla Moccha Lattes, or other syrupy concoctions, from half litre cardboard cups whilst they shopped or waited for public transport. In this way, they avoided mindlessly consuming empty calories, as occurs commonly in Australia.
3. Fish was favoured, red meat less common
I was away for 2.5 weeks and never once ate red meat. Most days my diet was based solely on fish; tuna salad at lunch and baked fish for dinner. For this reason, the Mediterranean diet is rich in poly-unsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for a healthy heart, brain and eyes. Fish is also low in fat, thereby assisting weight regulation. If I did eat something other than fish, it was generally chicken, turkey or pork. All lean, there again promoting weight regulation, heart health and diabetes risk reduction.
4. Olive oil was revered
The infinite olive groves and commonplace decorative olive trees proved how important olives and olive oil are to the Mediterranean. Every meal was cooked in olive oil, or dressed with a drizzle of oil. No coconut oil, no butter, no lard. Just locally produced extra virgin olive oil. Yes, the olive oil is high in fat, the health-promoting poly-unsaturated type, renowned for supporting heart health. Bottles of extra-virgin olive oil adorned every dining table, signifying just how essential it is to the Mediterranean diet.
French countryside. Olive-growing paradise.
Variety of fresh olives
As a walk through numerous food markets proved; fresh produce is preferred in the Mediterranean. The markets occur daily so food can be purchased and cooked fresh, direct from the fisherman/butcher/farmer/baker/delicatessen. Generally the meals prepared with said produce were simple, honouring the natural flavours of the food. Grilled vegetables for entree, fish and salad or meat and salad for mains. Pizza with minimal toppings such as tomato, cheese and basil, or simple pasta with tomato, meat and cheese. No 'Meatlover' or 'The Lot' pizzas, no heavy sauces or dressings masking the true flavour of food, no heavily processed foods. Just fresh local produce, enjoyed close to it's natural state.
Beautiful fresh sun-drenched tomatoes, looking more like pumpkins!
6. Portion size was controlled
Most of the meals I experienced were served in numerous courses, yet small portions. I think back to one lunch in Rome. We were served a small plate of pasta, which was received with raised eyebrows from fellow travellers, who commented "That's not much! Is that all we're getting?" True, the plate of pasta was a meagre portion compared to the over-flowing bowls much of Western culture has become accustomed to. What we did not realise, was the pasta was merely the first course, soon followed by an appropriate portion of roast pork and salad. Again, not the typical 350g steak you may expect to find on a restaurant menu in Australia, but a sufficient amount to leave you satiated without over eating.
An entree of fresh and grilled vegetables in Istanbul, Turkey
Did you know that according the 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey, only 8.4% of Australians ate the recommended daily 5 serves of vegetables? On my tour of the Mediterranean however, I was pleased to see vegetables featured in most meals. For example, a grilled vegetable antipasti plate to start a meal, a soup as a starter, a salad as a side dish, or vegetables included with meals. The regular consumption of vegetables ensures essential fibre consumption, to assist with weight regulation, heart health and diabetes risk reduction. It also proves that eating vegetables is not a chore, and can and should be an enjoyable, central feature of a meal.
Delicious Greek Salad in Athens
As a non-drinker, I cannot comment on the flavour of the wine overseas, though I did notice fellow travellers savouring a glass or two! The Italians were quick to inform us that a glass of red wine has been proven to be health-promoting, thanks to it's high antioxidant, specifically polyphenol, content. I was most pleased, however, to hear them crucially advise that the health benefits occur with the consumption of only one glass..... not multiple. The lesson? Rather than guzzling pints of beer, 'doing shots' or drinking to excess just for the sake of it, savour a good glass of red instead. Quality over quantity, yet again.
9. Fast food outlets were few and far between
I rarely saw fast food venues during my Mediterranean travels. Sure, I saw the golden arches in a few major cities, and a Burger King and a Subway along the way (right next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, oddly enough...), however for the most part, these outlets were not on every street corner or at every turn of the head, as they seem to be here at home. Instead, local eateries and quality local produce seemed preferred. I even noticed less advertising for fast food venues, compared to the omnipresent billboards and such which I notice at home. Out of sight, out of mind; a great way to reduce consumption of energy dense, low nutrient fast foods.
10. There were no food phobias or fads
Well, none that were obvious to me, anyhow. I mean to say, I did not notice any food outlets advertising "Clean Eating" friendly menus, or "Paleo" friendly meals. I did not notice any advertisements for "low fat," "sugar free," "low carb" or "high protein" products. I'm sure they exist somewhere in in the culture, though they did not infiltrate the communities. All foods appeared to be eaten without hesitation, including carbohydrate-rich pasta and high fat olive oil and cheese, for example. The food was simply prepared and enjoyed, without judgement or guilt, but with appreciation.
Carb-phobia? No thanks. Fresh bread for days in France.
These are simply some of my own personal observations from my 2 week period abroad. I acknowledge that of course there would be exceptions to these themes and that every individual eats in a different manner. I did however, like what I saw and I do believe there are value lessons to be learned from my observations. I have decided that more olive oil, more fish and more Mediterranean vegetables are required in my own diet! One thing is certain; I thoroughly enjoyed my whirlwind adventure through the Mediterranean and would recommend the region, and the Mediterranean pattern of eating, to anyone.
- Em x