Returning to the ways of our ancestors for better health and sustainability

We speak to Mediterranean diet expert Dr Catherine Istiopoulos about how you can do your part for the environment, while eating well

Whether you are interested in matters of the environment or not, there’s no denying the rising concerns: climate change, a growing population, and a rising demand for food, which has seen alternative, less natural approaches to farming – there is a great need for individuals to take responsibility for the lifestyle choices they make.

When it comes to diet, the research is not new, with one of the most common suggestions being made rather simple: to consume fewer animal products, namely meat, and to increase consumption of plant foods – not dissimilar to a traditional Mediterranean diet.

For those still sitting on the fence, the research is clear – not only is it beneficial for the environment, but it also has many plus sides for our health, lowering risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“The Mediterranean diet, apart from its health promoting properties and prevention of chronic disease, it’s certainly cost effective and sustainable and that is because it’s a plant-based diet and the ratio of plant and animal foods is 4:1,” Dr Catherine Istiopoulos explains. A stark contrast to the Western diet that many follow, where the ratio is alarmingly 1:1.

“Plant foods have a much, much lower impact on the environment. We know in terms of carbon emissions, and issues of sustainability and natural habitats that a lot of areas are cleared out to breed animals for our consumption. So having a high meat diet is very, very costly to the environment.”

She says a good alternative to meat are legumes, which feature highly in the Mediterranean diet. Not only are they healthy and tasty, they also have benefits for the environment.

“Legumes are particularly special because when you grow legumes in soil, they return nitrogen to the soil. So what a lot of farmers do now is they use legumes as a rotation crop.”

That doesn’t mean that we need not be mindful when consuming the Mediterranean way. Featuring fish, a high source of omega 3s, Dr Istiopoulos says that it is best to opt for small thin fish, such as sardines, or shell fish such as mussels, as well as octopus and calamari that have been sustainably sourced.

Meanwhile living in a country like Australia, the nutritionist says while we are very lucky to be able to eat the breadth of a Mediterranean diet across all seasons, it’s important to asses at what cost.

While those in northern states, where the climate is warmer similar to that of the Mediterranean, can grow summer fruits and vegetables all year round get her tick of approval, just because those of us in the south can find cherries and tomatoes in the supermarkets all year round doesn’t mean we should opt for them.

“If we import them and we fly them in, there are issues with that because of the food miles; the cost of getting the product to you,” she says.

“Not only will it be more expensive, oftentimes when you transport perishables over long distances, you have to harvest them unripe because they do ripen on the way, so that means they’re not maximised in terms of their nutritional value or flavour. A lot of people will say ‘tomatoes grown out of season don’t taste the same’, which is true because they haven’t been sun baked as long. You have to think of all of those factors when you don’t grow vegetables in the right season.”

This is of course something that didn’t have to be explained to our ancestors. After all, many first and second generation Greeks migrated to Australia from villages where they lived off the land, and so naturally felt connected with their environment, and so looking after it came naturally.

With the majority of subsequent generations now living in urban areas, leading busy lives, buying ready made, highly processed meals from the supermarket and ordering take out means we are becoming more and more disconnected with the preparation of food, and our environment.

READ MORE: Back to the basics of the Mediterranean diet

To help us get back in touch with our roots, Dr Itsiopoulos urges us to do just that by taking tips from the elderly.

“Our studies over the last couple of decades focus on Greek migrants. They live in a city and nearly all of them have home gardens, and they’ll grow them in anything; if there’s a patch of land there’s something growing in it, if there’s a pot there’s something growing in it. So that’s a cultural thing and it benefits their health in a number of ways.”

She urges growing whatever you can, wherever you can; if you only have a balcony, get some pots and give it a go. She says this is particularly important for families with young children.

“When you go into a supermarket you forget where everything comes from.
“But for all of us, some of the key things to do is trying and cook fresh a few times a week; visit a market and buy fresh foods. Put some time aside and cook fresh – that connects you with the food.”

Even if it is only on weekends, take the time to cook a big batch of fresh food – a number of traditional Greek foods are good options – and freeze leftovers in containers to ensure you have healthy, hearty meals ready through the week.

“Some people are scared to cook, because they don’t know how. But it should be fun, so experiment; include the family because we will lose these skills over time; unless children are raised in that environment where people are cooking at home, cooking fresh.”

Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos

The nutritionist welcomes the rise of the slow food movement, which also goes hand in hand with the rising new for mindfulness and connection in our fast paced world.

“We tend to eat in five minutes in front of the computer or the television, and that’s not ideal – get away from the TV. Meals should be had at a table, talking, so that you’re slowing down your eating and you’re giving your body and mind a chance to register that you’ve eaten enough.”

While Dr Itsiopoulos says schools play an important role in educating children about their food choices, both healthy and sustainable, she is a strong believer that “good habits, good morals, good ethics, good behaviours begin in the home, and we need to set the example there”.

It’s not hard to see why Dr Itsipoulos is so passionate about the Mediterranean diet. Aside from being the cuisine of her Cretan ancestors, she has witnessed the health benefits first-hand.

It was five years ago that she published one of her best papers, on how the Mediterranean diet can reverse fatty liver, which at the time had no treatment and so was considered revolutionary.

“It’s a topic that is dear to everyone’s heart; everybody eats, everyone loves food, and I guess fortuitously for me, working with the Mediterranean diet it’s a lifestyle concept that as soon as I start talking about it, it makes people happy because it’s not about ‘you’re on this special diet, you can’t eat this, you can’t eat that, you cut this’. This is about what you can eat.
“And we can almost go to every category and explain how a Mediterranean diet is good for the environment and therefore has the sustainability tick more so than a diet that would be higher in animal foods.”

· Grow your own where possible; even if you start small with herbs and tomatoes.
· Shop from local green grocers and farmers markets, ideally ones where food is sourced from within a 10-20 km radius of where you live.
· Cook with fresh produce; if pressed for time, pick one day a week, batch cook and freeze for convenient weeknight meals.

Meat can be highly nutritious, but it’s all about balance. If you are trying to cut down on your meat consumption, here are some alternative choices to ensure your nutritional needs are covered.

· Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)*
· Greek yoghurt
· Quinoa
· Nuts (almonds)

· Legumes*
· Green leafy vegetables**
· Apricots and figs, dried
· Nuts (cashews)

· Mushrooms (unpeeled)
· Seafood (fish and shellfish, clams, sardines)
· Dairy (milk, yoghurt)

(Good) fats:
· Olive oil***

* While legume are a good source of protein, carbohydrates, fibre, they don’t have the full complement of amino acids that meat do, so you need to complement them with cereals to get the right combination.
** The iron in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and horta is not as bio-available. To ensure you’re absorbing as much iron as possible, add vitamin c or an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar.
*** In a salad, the greens and tomatoes have fat soluble nutrients, which means they need fat to be absorbed, so adding olive oil increases absorption of the nutrients in the salad foods.

Note: Using herbs and spices instead of salt to season your food is not only a healthier option, but also boosts the antioxidant content of salad and cooked vegetable dishes.