The Mediterranean Diet by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos is published by Pan MacMillan

Are you in a food rut?

A beautiful group of products, (Fish, fruit, vegetables, cereals, beans, and olive oil) typical in the mediterranean diet iStock. Mediterrean diet.

Food of life: the broader the mix, the greater the benefits. Photo: iStockphoto

Does every breakfast bowl and sandwich filling look much like the last? Are you cooking the same dinners week after week? If this is you (and it’s often me) it can be because there’s no time to think of anything else.

Is this unhealthy? Not necessarily. Those same-old meals might include impeccably healthy ingredients – it’s just that a broader mix of foods makes it easier to get enough of the different nutrients we need, says Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos, Associate Professor in Dietetics and Human Nutrition at La Trobe University.

“We know we’re meant to eat a variety of foods, but the message is sometimes misunderstood. You can have 20 different types of pasta – but that’s not food variety. Food variety means eating a diverse range of biologically different foods from each food group,” she says.

This means that swapping cous cous for pasta doesn’t count. Both come from the same grain: wheat – also the basis of bread and so much breakfast cereal. Including quinoa, barley and basmati or brown rice, for instance, opens up the range of foods and nutrients.

That’s sometimes easier said than done though. When you’re racing the clock, adding water to cous cous is faster than cooking either quinoa – which needs rinsing first – or barley which takes longer. The solution:  cook more than you need and freeze the rest for later.

To bring more variety into our eating we can learn a lot from the Mediterranean food that Itsiopoulos, the daughter of Greek migrants, grew up on. Her research has focused on this diet, including comparisons of the eating habits of middle aged Australians and Greek migrants in Melbourne. One main difference wasn’t just that the Greeks ate more vegetables but that the variety was much broader. An example of how traditional  Greek food makes this possible is a vegetable bake with okra that uses ten different vegetables – one of the   recipes in her new book The Mediterranean Diet which explains the science behind this way of eating and how to put it into practice  in the kitchen.

“The bigger the range of vegetables the bigger the range of antioxidants and other phytochemicals you’ll take in. Variety is important because these nutrients often work synergistically to produce a protective effect – that’s why nutrients in food tend to work better than supplements based on single nutrients,” she says. “Eating five different vegetables each day is good – but preferably not the same vegetables every day.”

Besides boosting the range of nutrients in a meal, extra vegetables in dishes like pasta sauces and curries makes them more filling without adding more kilojoules. A couple of salads in the centre of the table  is another way to bring more variety into a meal – just skip the iceberg in favour of darker greens which are richer in nutrients.

“If people eat around the table and food is in front of them they’ll eat it – but if they’re eating in front of television they won’t get up and help themselves,” Itsiopoulos says.

Bringing variety into meals doesn’t have to mean spending time experimenting with new dishes – just add new ingredients to old standards. Pasta with marinara sauce is a weekly event at our place, but always different. The pasta portion is dialed down and replaced with at least two extra vegetables added to the tomato and onion base – cauliflower florets, celery, fennel, zucchini, capsicum, button mushrooms or peas all work well.

Every breakfast bowl is another opportunity to add something different in the way of fruit, nuts or seeds and every sandwich, casserole  or stir fry is a chance to squeeze in extra veg. Don’t be stingy with fresh herbs either, adds Itsiopoulos – treat them like the nutrient-rich food they are and use generously.

The Mediterranean Diet by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos is published by Pan MacMillan, RRP $34.99.

There’s more healthy food inspiration at the online Jean Hailes Kitchen where naturopath, Sandra Villella is running a daily cooking class for Women’s Health Week, this week. Go to www.women’

How do you stay out of a food rut?

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