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Mediterranean diet is healthy... but Maltese isn’t

The Mediterranean diet cuts the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke by a third, according to a study.

Results released by the New England Journal of Medicine this week confirmed claims that the Mediterranean diet reduces the rate for people who are at risk of heart attacks and strokes when compared to a low-fat diet.

But despite our geographical location, the Maltese diet, influenced by the 200-year British rule and the proximity to Italy, is far from Mediterranean.

The findings – Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet – show that about 30 per cent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths could be prevented in people at high risk if they switched to a diet rich in olive oil, vegetables, fish, beans, swap red meat with white meat and even drink wine.

News of the findings spread quickly as, so far, studies showed lower rates of heart disease in Mediterranean countries that could not be pinned down to just the diet.

For this study, 7,450 people in Spain who had diabetes, smoked or had other risk factors were asked to follow a Mediterranean or low-fat diet.

The Mediterranean diet included four tablespoons of olive oil a day or three servings of nuts weekly.

Two groups were also asked to eat legumes and fish at least three times a week, three servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables daily and, for those accustomed to drinking, seven glasses of wine a week with meals.

A third group followed a controlled diet.

Over a five-year period, 288 participants suffered a heart attack, stroke or died of a cardiovascular disease.

The results showed a drop in risk of 30 per cent for those on the Mediterranean diets compared with the low fat diet.

The findings might bring a smile to many Maltese, who believe the island’s geographical position automatically labels our diet as Mediterranean. But, in 2011, an eating habit survey showed that the Maltese have a sweet tooth and consume small portions of fruit.

The results of Malta’s first consumption survey showed biscuits, chocolates or sweets as the preferred breakfast and snack choice, while the most popular food at lunch and dinner time was pasta followed by chicken and beef.

Most people ate about a quarter of a cup of vegetables and another quarter of fruit during lunch.

Registered nutritionist and occupational therapist Daniela Cassola confirmed that the study highlighted the significant impact of diet on health. But our diet is far from Mediterranean, which was reflected in the health of our nation, she said.

Quoting studies, she said that the Maltese people’s current dietary habits had been influenced by the British rule and the island’s proximity, cultural and commercial links to Italy.

The island’s long dependence on food imports and introduction of fast food chains have also had an impact.

Malta has shifted towards a “Westernised diet”, increasing the consumption of meat, milk and dairy products, eggs, vegetable oils, salt and sugar.

Ms Cassola referred to an 1839 report for the British Government about the health of troops in Malta that said “the Maltese use very little animal food, bread, with the vegetables of the country, and, occasionally, a little fish, forms their principal sustenance”.

In 1986, the World Health Organisation said: “The average Maltese diet is not a healthy one. It is especially rich in fats and sugar and low in fibre.”

And because of our diet, our mortality patterns are different from those in the Mediterranean. The coronary heart disease mortality rate in Malta, for example, is comparable to northern Europe.

Registered nutritionist Claire Copperstone agreed that although the trends in our diet indicated Mediterranean characteristics, on the whole it was not truly Mediterranean.

She referred to two surveys that could give an indication of eating trends: the consumption survey and the 2002 health interview survey.

The Maltese tend to use both olive oil and vegetable oil to prepare food while sweets and alcohol are still popular. Consumption of vegetables and fruit is very low, nowhere close to the recommended five portions a day.

“Our diet is a mix of being geographically Mediterranean but culturally influenced by our former colonisers,” she said.

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