The Mediterranean diet in the Ghanaian context• Prospects and challenges
The term Mediterranean diet was originally coined by Ancel Keys, the famous American physiologist who studied the influence of diet on health in the 1960’s.
The diet is based on the traditional eating habits of people from countries around the Mediterranean Sea including Spain, Greece, Italy among others.
He observed the dietary practices embraced by the people in the Mediterranean countries and found a reduction in incidence of chronic diseases as well as higher life expectancy when compared to other regions of the world.
The Mediterranean dietary pattern emphasises the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole cereals with moderate consumption of wine and fish.
The diet further emphasises infrequent consumption of red meat, animal fats, processed foods and focuses on olive oil as the main fat source.
Regular physical activity is an important component of the Mediterranean diet.
Over the last few years, the Mediterranean diet has gained popularity as one of the healthiest dietary patterns.
It has been reported to be generally beneficial with respect to lowering the incidence of chronic diseases such as some cancers particularly breast and colon cancers, cognitive impairment, metabolic syndrome, obesity and type II diabetes and improving life expectancy.
These benefits are attributable to the presence of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and fibre in the diet.
Various studies carried out have reported that a strict adherence to a Mediterranean dietary pattern resulted in a decrease in cardiovascular disease risk by about 20-25 per cent.
It has been considered as an easy dietary pattern to follow due to its flexibility and ease of accessibility of characteristic foods.
Benefits in Ghana
The prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is rapidly increasing in Ghana due to westernisation, improved socio-economic status and urbanisation. In 2017, about 518.400 cases of diabetes were reported in Ghana.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) identified cardiovascular diseases as the second leading cause of death among Ghanaians.
Shifting towards the Mediterranean dietary pattern may help reduce the incidence and mortality of NCDs in Ghana.
In addition to its overall health benefits, this dietary pattern plays an important role in the maintenance of a sustainable environment.
A sustainable diet is one that is protective of the environment, is nutritionally adequate and is safe for consumption.
Studies have shown that the consumption of plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on the environment by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
In the Ghanaian context, some challenges may be encountered in an attempt to adhere to the Mediterranean dietary style.
This may be due to the fact that most Ghanaians may not be aware of the existence of such a dietary pattern to start with.
Also, with the establishment of multiple fast food joints, Ghanaians are gradually developing a taste for less nutritious fast foods.
This may likely influence adherence to the Mediterranean diet negatively as the diet only allows little room for the inclusion of processed foods.
Another unique challenge may be the price of olive oil which is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean dietary pattern. Olive oil costs a lot more than most other cooking oils and this may make it impossible for some Ghanaians to be able to readily afford it.
The above-mentioned potential challenges notwithstanding, adopting the Mediterranean dietary pattern may be achievable with a little bit of planning.
There are components of the Ghanaian diet that have similarities to the Mediterranean diet.
Locally available fruits and vegetables such as kontomire, garden eggs, okro, mango, watermelon and banana are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Purchasing fruits and vegetables in season will be a good strategy to reduce costs. Whole grain cereals such as maize, wheat, millet are local staples, rich in fibre and micronutrients and can fit well in the Mediterranean dietary pattern.
Plant and animal protein sources such as soybean, groundnut, beans, salmon, tuna, and herrings are also high in fibre and polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega 3) and play a crucial role in the Mediterranean dietary pattern.
Groundnut, canola and sunflower oils can be used in place of olive oil as they provide similar benefits but are less expensive.
Countries such as Ghana that are grappling with the upsurge of NCDs will benefit from efforts aimed at adopting the Mediterranean dietary pattern.
The Ghanaian populace stands to benefit immensely from nutrition education efforts that will focus on teaching the requisite knowledge and skills needed to adopt the Mediterranean diet.
Dietitians can play a key role in this regard by educating both their clients and other members of the healthcare team on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
The writers are with the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics of the University of Ghana.