What did the Cradle of Civilisation eat?

February 23, 2014 in Health & Nutrition, Health and exercise |


Another guest post from Morwenna Given, a medical herbalist, this time on diet.  Most things you read about diet tend to be a few quick magic bullet points intended to sell magazines, but this I think you will find interesting: 


At this time of the year after the excesses of the holiday and religious festivals of December thoughts turn to diet and we see marketing after marketing of a multiplicity of diets. Every diet appears to have a twist (unique point of sale) to promote it together with associated products whether it is a book, video, packaged meals and so on. The diet industry is huge with its purchasers hoping for a magic bullet and or a quick fix. The sad truth is that with the exception of a very small number of medical conditions excess weight is very simply an excess of consumption over expenditure i.e. too much food for the body to absorb so it is stored as fat and not enough exercise to burn off the excess food. A change of lifestyle is usually the issue that needs to be addressed for a successful long term outcome.

This consumption of excess food is a luxury and a hall mark of an indulged wealthy civilisation. In the past, very few members of the population anywhere in the world could afford or had access to excess food. In the Mediterranean, and the area of the Middle East regarded as the cradle of civilisation – the Euphrates -, obesity and its related medical disorders such as diabetes type 11 were rare not just because of the nature of the food stuffs consumed but also because consumption was related to income, availability and volume. As nations become wealthier, food cheaper and processed, we see a consequent rise in diseases arising from years of inappropriate food and alcohol consumption – cancer, diabetes type 1, Alzheimer’s’, Parkinson’s, MS etc. This pattern is already starting to happen in Brazil, India, China.

The changes in the food industry and its contribution to obesity has led to the notion that there must be a ‘magic’ solution to losing weight through the Mediterranean diet. This week I have been asked several times for my opinion on it. I have pointed out that fundamentally any diet which is beneficial to long term human health has to have a balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates in a ratio suited to human physiology as it has evolved over the last 50,000 years. In other words if you eat to excess any ‘diet’ you will cause a problem. Moderation in all things, above all moderation.

The basic ingredients or food stuffs of diets around the Mediterranean shores and in the Middle East revolve around a high use of vegetables (tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, zucchini, aubergines, olives) olive oil, wine, grilled meats typically poultry, lamb, goat, fish, low levels of milk and cheese often from goats and sheep, nuts, seeds, fruits, small amounts of high density desert type sweets. Dishes can be very simple to very elaborate but typically they are all prepared freshly each day full of herbs and spices. No ‘processed’ food with GMP crops or additives like salt, sugar, preservatives, synthetic flavours. Avoiding processed food is the first step to a healthy balanced weight and optimising nutrient intake from food.

Most North Americans typically eat a diet high in carbs derived from grains such as processed foods, pizzas, muffins, cakes, sandwiches, hamburgers buns. Grains contain complex polysaccharides – high density sugars – which the body only needs in small quantities. The Mediterranean dietary practices use some grains – think pitta bread or Fatoush – but in modest quantities. Our bodies need a small amount of grains as they contain B vitamins not generally found in high quantities in vegetables and meats. An excess of grains leads to an excess of carbs which is converted to sugar in the body and eventually into fat.ie weight gain.

The Mediterranean diet is high in fat (30% to 40% of total calories) from vegetable sources such as olive oil and nuts and relatively low in dairy products. It has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease by as much as 30%. The importance of fats in the diet (all sources) has also been shown in a number of other types of regional diets. Japanese men with higher cholesterol derived from fish derived fat diets have been shown to live longer and healthier than those on low fat western diets. A high use of nuts (not processed or treated with oils and salt) has also been shown to be important in reducing cancer, cardiac and respiratory diseases.

The dairy industry in North America is a huge. Its marketing and inventive use of cows dairy products is impressive, supported by taxpayers subsidies and or tax perks, but that does not mean it is beneficial to human health in the volumes and use of its products as suggested by marketing. Physiologically humans are not designed to consume very much dairy product after the age of 16yrs. Nor are we designed physiologically to consume in vast quantities the anti-biotics and hormones given to cows which then get transferred into milk. We also tend to forget that milk is primarily composed of sugars which brings us to the same problem that grains cause excess consumption leads to excess sugar being stored as fat i.e. weight gain.

The daily use of fresh herbs and spices is equally important to human health. Parsley typically found with hummus made from chickpeas is high in vitamin C a good alternative to eating an orange which was not available 12 months of the year. Garlic either raw or cooked breaks down fats efficiently for the human body as well as giving protection against harmful bacteria and viruses. Thyme contains one of the most potent anti-bacterial compounds available to us – thymol. I was once stuck in the Australian outback with an unexpected dental root infection in my jaw. With nothing in my suitcase or a dentist in sight, I applied an infusion of fresh and dried thyme initially every 4 hours to the affected area successfully controlling the pain, infection and swelling for 3 weeks by using thyme until my returned home when I could see my dentist.

Vegetables and fruits give us all those hugely important phytochemicals which we need to grow and maintain our health. Saponins are found in chickpeas and they reduce the risk of heart disease. Flavonoids key to absorbing vitamin C, lowering blood pressure, anti-oxidants are found in grapes, onions, figs, citrus, tomatoes. Tannins with anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, haemostatic properties are in found in Pomegranates. Vitamin A is found in yellow /red veggies such as peppers, Vitamin B’s in whole grains, Vitamin C in most fruits and vegetables, Vitamin E in nuts and seeds, Vitamin K in greens. Minerals are also found in most of the commonly used veggies.

A balanced diet is low in sugars and uses non processed foods as the primary step to good health and disease prevention. If you enjoy the Mediterranean foods which give us all the important nutrients needed for human health then it is never too late to start cooking and it can be a fun filled journey. Enjoy! Bon Appetit.

©Morwenna Given BA MA (Oxon) BSC OHA BHG AHG RH is a Medical Herbalist practising in downtown Toronto treating a range of medical diseases. More information can be found at her website www.medicusherbis.com


Spanish cardiovascular prevention study Prevencion con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED)Ann Intern Med. Published online January 6, 2014. Available at http://annals.org.

N Engl J Med. 2013;369:2001-2011.

A Book of Middle Eastern Food Claudia Roden published by Penguin.

Nutr Rev. 2014 Jan;72(1):1-17. doi: 10.1111/nure.12083. Epub 2013 Dec 13.Breast cancer and dietary patterns: a systematic review.

A daily glass of red wine associated with lifestyle changes independently improves blood lipids in patients with carotid arteriosclerosis: results from a randomized controlled trial. A.Nutr J. 2013 Nov 15;12(1):147. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-12-147

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