It's healthy, but is the M-plan diet a heritage icon?

IT CONJURES up delightful images of olive oil-soaked tomatoes and fish, consumed outside traditional whitewashed buildings under clear blue skies.

The "Mediterranean diet", promoted by television chefs such as Rick Stein, has been revered by northern European doctors as the nutritional gold standard to which their overweight patients should turn.

It has led to rocketing sales of olive oil in Britain, and several Mediterranean nations are so proud of their eating habits they want them promoted across the world.

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Such is the perceived value of the Mediterranean diet that Spain is leading a bid to persuade the United Nations education and culture body Unesco to add it to the world heritage list – which includes the Festival of the Dead in Mexico and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

According to its agricultural ministry, Spain "took the initiative … convinced that the characteristics of the Spanish culinary model par excellence make it clearly deserving of this Unesco distinction".

Juan Mari Arzak, a Basque chef whose restaurant has three Michelin stars, said: "If this is proved, it would show that the cuisine is better (than others). When you get a Nobel prize, it's because you've earned it."

However, experts said that rather than being an age-old, uniform concept, the "Mediterranean diet" had only existed as a term since the 1960s as a perceived solution to a health problem elsewhere.

They explained that this had followed rejection of the even healthier Japanese diet, with its focus on raw fish, as likely to be less palatable to westerners.

Nutritionists argue that Scotland is ideally placed to create its own version of the Mediterranean diet, using indigenous produce that gives similar health benefits.

The focus on the culinary traditions of the Mediterranean followed concerns 40 years ago about rising heart disease rates elsewhere, and observations of lower levels in areas such as Crete.

It was later popularised in the 1990s as the health problems associated with obesity in northern Europe and north America caused increasing concern. There are significant differences in food preparation and consumption around the Mediterranean, but common links include the use of olive oil, large amounts of fruit, vegetables and grains, and far more fish than meat.

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Red wine has also been seen as an associated factor, along with climate and lifestyle, such as sunshine, outdoor living and physical activity.

Rather than just helping to ward off heart disease, the diet has almost become a remedy for all ills.

Over just the last six months, scientific studies have linked the diet to reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, cutting child asthma and allergies, and helping people live longer.

These were joined last week by Spanish research, published in the British Medical Journal, which showed the diet provided "substantial protection" against diabetes.

At the diet's core is its low proportion of saturated fat compared to the levels found in meat and dairy products beloved by northern Europeans.

It is thought to be the combination of different elements in the diet rather than individual items that holds the key to its health-promoting success.

Olive oil is believed to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Red wine is seen as beneficial in moderate quantities because it contains antioxidants.

Oldways, a food think-tank based in Boston in the United States, said the diet was "based on the dietary traditions of Crete, Greece and southern Italy circa 1960, at a time when the rates of chronic disease were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest, even though medical services were limited".

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Researchers in the diabetes study, from the University of Navarra, said: "A particular feature of the diet is the abundant use of virgin olive oil for cooking, frying, spreading on bread, or dressing salads. This leads to a high ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids."

Professor Mike Lean, the head of human nutrition at Glasgow University, said the Mediterranean diet had its attributes, but the Scottish diet was once just as healthy, and it could be again if there was a new focus on the country's natural produce. "It was found that people in Crete – and other areas such as Greece, southern France and Morocco – had lower rates of heart disease than in northern Europe. They had an agreeable climate, ate more fish than us, and two or three times as much fruit and vegetables, but rarely ate meat.

"There are certainly variations in different parts of the Mediterranean, but what people there have in common is eating olive oil, tomatoes and salads, and large amounts of fruit.

"I know people in Italy who shop every day because they cannot otherwise carry home enough tomatoes."

However, Prof Lean said Scots could get similar benefits using indigenous produce. Many had turned their back on these since cheap wheat and sugar arrived from the Americas in the 19th century, causing the traditionally healthy Scottish diet to "collapse". Prof Lean said: "The health of our great grandparents was not that much different from those in the Mediterranean – they ate less meat and more fruit and vegetables than us.

He said: "Japanese friends of mine believe Scotland has as good natural produce as Japan's, such as extremely good fish, vegetables and some of the best berries in the world, but we don't eat them."

He added that while Scotland could not produce its own olive oil, indigenous rapeseed oil was nutritionally similar. It is now being produced here for the first time, by a group of farmers in the Borders.

Prof Lean said: "You could create a Mediterranean-style diet using Scottish ingredients. However, it is very difficult to make changes at a national level because there are no Scottish-owned supermarkets."

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Mary Contini, a director of the Valvona & Crolla Italian delicatessen in Edinburgh, said a key attribute of the Mediterranean diet was respect for food.

Mrs Contini said: "It involves eating three proper meals a day, making food a pleasant and healthy experience. However, in Scotland I see children snacking all day."

A little of what's good for you


A rich source of mono-unsaturated fat, which is thought to protect against heart disease.

It lowers cholesterol levels in the blood and has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

Olive oil is also a source of antioxidants including vitamin E.


A major source of antioxidants thanks to the high concentration of the bright red pigment lycopene, which increases with cooking.

Tomatoes also contain half the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, and vitamin E.

They contain high levels of beta-carotene, which bolsters the immune system and helps maintain healthy skin, are low in salt, starch and sugars, high in dietary fibre and have a low glycemic index.


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Oily fish such as sardines have important health benefits as a source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.

The complex long-chain derivatives of these fats appear to be particularly beneficial to heart health because of their anti-inflammatory properties.


Wine, especially red, contains a vast array of plant compounds with health-promoting qualities called phytonutrients. Among them are polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that can protect against conditions including heart disease.


Vegetables contain several antioxidants which could help prevent certain cancers from forming and also help it to repair after stress and illness. Their high levels of fibre benefit the digestive system, while many are fat-free and low in calories.


Most fruit is low in fat, sodium, and calories, but packed with vitamins and minerals such as potassium, dietary fibre, vitamin C, and folic acid.

Potassium helps keep blood pressure healthy and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. Fibre helps reduce blood cholesterol. Vitamin C is essential for the growth and repair of body tissues, wound healing and healthy teeth and gums.

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