Herbs, Phytonutrients and the Mediterranean Diet
Updated: Mar 25
I often advise my clients to shift towards eating a more Mediterranean-style diet. Epidemiological research over the last few decades has shown us that people eating a Mediterranean diet are healthier than those of us eating a Western-style diet of processed foods and microwaved meals.
A traditional Mediterranean diet is associated with lower levels of all chronic diseases and obesity.
What is in the Mediterranean diet that makes it so healthy?
The Mediterranean diet is plant based, meaning they traditionally ate a lot of vegetables, with small amounts of meat, fish and legumes, fruit and whole grains. Many years ago, researchers discovered two key components of the Mediterranean diet; firstly, they discovered the health benefits of olives and extra virgin olive oil. Most of us now indulge in delicious olive oil for the essential fatty acids and the antioxidants it provides us. Secondly, resveratrol was found in red wine, which is a powerful antioxidant and very beneficial to the cardiovascular system.
However, what I want to talk about, is the incredible contribution of the traditional herbs of the region to good health. Growing wild in the Mediterranean were herbs such as sage (pictured), parsley, oregano, rosemary and thyme. Garlic was used in large quantities and other herbs such as caraway, cumin and coriander were diet staples.
Most of these herbs have now been studied and found to be powerhouses of beneficial phytonutrients. So regular consumption of these herbs can lead to good health and prevention of chronic disease.
What are phytonutrients?
The term phytonutrients refers to the chemicals found in plants ("phyto" meaning plant). These chemicals are produced by the plant for many functions, such as protection from predators and disease and to attract pollinators. The phytonutrients are responsible for the flavours, smells and colours of the plant. Some of these plants have strong flavours or bitter flavours.
Researchers have so far discovered more than 25,000 phytonutrients in vegetables, fruit and herbs. Discoveries about the health benefits of these phytonutrients are increasing every day and many herbs have been found to be antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood thinning, blood sugar regulating and anti-ageing.
Many of the Mediterranean herbs have remarkable anti-microbial action, which means that regular consumption can kill microbes in food and fight against cold and flu. Herbs such as garlic, thyme, sage, oregano, and allspice have these properties.
For the best health giving benefits, the trick is regular consumption.
Tips for adding more herbs to your diet:
So, how do you consume more of these amazing, health giving phytonutrients?
1. Start at breakfast: why not sprinkle cinnamon on your muesli or chop up parsley, coriander and chives to go with your eggs?
2. Add herbs such as mint or ginger to your smoothies! Yum!
3. Herbal teas can be sipped on all day long, my favourites are ginger, nettle and fennel teas but you can also try peppermint and lemongrass.
4. Add herbs to your usual soup recipes to spice them up! Have you tried caraway seeds in a pumpkin soup?
5. Add herbs to your salads such as basil (pictured), lemon basil, mint and chives.
6. Make some pesto using basil, parsley and coriander for eating as a dip or stirring through your pasta.
7. If you make your own bread, why not try adding olives and herbs? Nigella seeds are fabulous in bread.
8. Next time you are sautéing mushrooms, add a little sprig of rosemary to the oil, the flavour will amaze you and incite compliments from any guests.
9. Roast dinners should never be without herbs. Rosemary, fennel seeds, garlic, parsley, sage and thyme are favourites of mine to go with a roast.
10. Potatoes with butter and parsley is another classic combination.
11. Add herbs to any of your dinners, be creative but start with one at a time to fully appreciate the flavours.
12. Don't forget dessert! You can add herbs such as mint to your desserts. Did you know that thyme goes with chocolate?
Grow your own herbs
The easiest way to have fresh herbs on hand is to grow your own. This is actually very easy. Mediterranean herbs love the sun and don't need soils to be particularly damp or fertile. In fact, the growing conditions will effect the phytonutrients in the plant.