The Mediterranean diet is a way of life more than a specific regime.
It is based on the lifestyle and consumption patterns of people living in Mediterranean regions such as Crete in the 1950s and 60s. This involved keeping active, community living, freshly prepared seasonal food in moderation, relatively high in carbohydrate and fat intake but seldom indulgence or excess.
The concept gained traction largely due to the work of Ancel Keys, an American physiologist who carried out the famous Seven Countries Study after noticing that certain Mediterranean populations lived to notably ripe old ages.
It has since been studied repeatedly, and not just in the Mediterranean, with the overwhelming conclusion that this diet can help you live longer. For example, evidence suggests it can help prevent high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers as well as improve cholesterol levels and hinder weight gain. (For what it’s worth, Keys himself lived to 100.)
As we’ve discovered, it’s hard to pin down so perhaps best to focus on certain key fundamentals and build up from there. Good sources or starting points include Susie Theodorou’s excellent book Mediterranean or the tried-and-tested classics from Elizabeth David. (The MIND and DASH diets have been developed around the fundamentals of the Mediterranean diet.) There are also helpful sources in a more medical context such as the NHS.
In essence, though, it majors on plenty of fresh veg and fruit with nuts, seeds, beans, cereals, bread and whole grains. Fish is good, as is olive oil to provide plenty of monounsaturated fat. Meat and dairy is used sparingly – so maybe the odd bit of cheese for flavour but little butter – and fried food or pastries, added sugar and sweets are largely absent save for the occasional treat.
Beyond plenty of water for hydration and the occasional tea or coffee, the Mediterranean diet also incorporates wine.
The vine is a Mediterranean plant – it loves hot, dry weather and thrives in the poor soils of the region’s hillsides and islands. For millennia it has been the staple tipple.
But that’s not all. Studies show that wine is not just a bit-part player in the overall mix. Recent research (Eleftheriou et al, 2018) indicates that moderate alcohol consumption, mostly in the form of wine, is in fact is one of the key protective components in the Mediterranean diet.
Red wine is typically cited in this context, mainly because of its high content of beneficial polyphenols. But there are also polyphenols (albeit different ones) in white wine and so far there is no convincing evidence that red wine is superior. So white wine can be on the menu as well as red.
The key thing about wine in the Mediterranean diet, though, is the way you drink it. Consistency and moderation are the fundamentals – a glass or two, with a meal, every day. No bingeing. No abstinence.
On the one hand, excess consumption can undo all the positive benefits of moderate intake. On the other, some of the beneficial effects of wine (improving cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of blood clots etc) wear off after a short while. So it’s useful to take on board small quantities in a regular pattern.
So just how much wine are we allowed as part of the Mediterranean diet? We consulted nutritionist and dietician Ursula Fradera at the Deutsche Weinakademie. She told us the following:
‘The amount that is associated with the least health risks (based on scientific evidence) is up to 1-2 glasses or units of wine for women and 2-3 glasses or units of wine for men with meals.’
For a wine at 12%, this translates as up to 200ml of wine for women and up to 300ml of wine for men per day. But few wines are 12% these days – and for a wine at 14%, the upper limit drops to around 175ml for women and 250ml for men.
Do remember, though, that the optimal amount varies from person to person. Bear in mind also that alcohol levels as stated on the label can differ from what’s actually in the bottle – by up to 0.5% either way in the EU and China or up to 1.5% either way in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Here’s a short video we made on wine quantities in the Med diet:
For whites, try Assyrtiko from Santorini or a great-value Picpoul de Pinet.
For reds, what about Nerello Mascalese from Sicily or a rich Aglianico or Primitivo from southern Italy. There are lovely reds from Catalonia, Lebanon – or be more adventurous with wines from Mallorca, Turkey or Croatia.
Wine buyer Steve Daniel, who has a house on Santorini and has followed a Mediterranean diet for 30 years, says the diet counters his naturally high cholesterol levels and has meant he hasn’t needed to take statins. His wine advice is as follows:
‘Wines from the region are best. I like saline, mineral, dry whites – or lighter reds. Wines that make me salivate.’
Check out our ever-expanding selection of our favourite recipes for the Mediterranean diet (with drinks to match!)
We teamed up with wine merchant Corney & Barrow to make a series of videos about this project. We popped in to talk to head wine buyer Rebecca Palmer about the food and wines, and she suggested some bottles for us to try. This is the full video – check out our YouTube channel for more.