Sampling the local cuisine is a highlight of any trip through Europe. The flaky croissants, golden saganaki and sun-ripened tomatoes with mozzarella and olive oil are almost reason enough to emigrate. But once home, why not pick and choose the best bits of these diets for optimum health?
Better Med than dead
A Mediterranean diet has been linked to better cardiovascular health and increased life expectancy. The Italians and Greeks eat seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats such as nuts, olive oil and avocado, a moderate amount of lean protein and good-quality wholegrains and legumes in small amounts, says clinical nutritionist Gemma Clark.
She adds, “Plus a smidge of red wine to keep our souls happy – it does contain antioxidative constituents if that helps you justify it!” Researchers at Deakin University have found the diet can also help those experiencing moderate to severe depression. To adopt it at home, Clark advises filling half your plate with non-starchy vegies, adding a palm-sized portion of fish, chicken or pork (or, twice a week, red meat), and a fist (for men) or half fist (for women) of wholegrains or legumes. Drizzle with a extra virgin olive oil and tuck in.
This diet from Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Denmark emphasises wholegrains like rye and oats, root vegetables, cabbage and fruit – with a focus on berries. Meat consumption is also low. “The Nordic diet encourages oily fish consumption two to three times a week and the use of oil from the canola plant, which grows abundantly in cooler climates,” says dietitian Georgia Bevan. “It also has a strong focus on wild-caught, local and ethically sourced produce.”
Despite being far from Scandinavia, we can reap similar health benefits here. Bevan suggests making sure one of our two daily fruit serves consists of berries, which are low in sugar and high in antioxidants (which reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease), and eating rye bread to increase intake of B vitamins, zinc, iron and magnesium.
Contrary to popular belief, the French diet does have quite a few health benefits. “While some classic French foods may be high in fat, the French are excellent at portion control,” says dietitian Kate Gudorf. “Eating small amounts of rich food is a good strategy for weight management and may also help to prevent cravings.”
The French don’t shy away from fats such as olive oil, butter and cheese, either. This can be healthier than choosing “low fat” options, as sugar or thickening agents are often added to these to improve flavour and texture. For this diet, Gudorf recommends reducing processed foods and filling up on fresh vegetables, lean meat and wholegrains. Have a piece of fruit or a handful of almonds when you want a snack and enjoy a small glass of wine with dinner.
A key trait of European cuisines is that they draw on the best of what is in season to produce regional delicacies. “The best-quality, cheapest produce is always that which is in season,” says Clark. “Seasonal produce is more nutrient-dense, tastier and contains what our bodies require at any given time of year.” She points out how fruits rich in vitamin C often ripen in winter to aid fighting colds, and how watermelons and cucumbers are in season during the months when we need to stay hydrated.
Beyond the health benefits of the food itself, the ritual of eating is a source of pleasure and an important social experience in Europe. “Wander the streets at lunchtime in France, Spain or Italy and you’ll see countless people sitting down to eat lunch,” says Clark. “There’s more priority and respect put into meal times.” This leads to more mindful eating practices, and is better for the digestive system.
Eat like a European
• Shop at farmers markets for ingredients that are in season.
• Consume your food mindfully – sit down to eat with good company.
• Eat fresh fruit, vegies and good fats like olive oil, nuts and avocado.