• Middle Eastern meze platter with green falafel, pita, sun dried tomatoes, pumpkin and beet hummus, olives, stuffed peppers, tabbouleh, figs. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
You don't have to stick to just Greek and Italian food to reap the nutritional benefits of the Mediterranean diet: traditional whole food-based dishes from the Middle Eastern section of the Mediterranean basin offer just as many health kicks.
By
Yasmin Noone

24 Oct 2018 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 24 Oct 2018 - 10:53 AM

In our quest to shower a whole lot of love on the nutritionally famed, Mediterranean Diet, the world may have neglected to celebrate its overlapping friend: the Middle Eastern diet.

Accredited Practising Dietitian, Anika Rouf, explains that ‘the other’ Mediterranean diet – comprised of traditional foods from Middle Eastern sections of the Mediterranean basin like Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey – is just as nutritionally beneficial.

“Overall, the Mediterranean diet is less processed compared to western diets as it is based on whole foods,” says Rouf, a PhD candidate at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at University of Sydney.

“But there’s definitely more to the Mediterranean diet than we think. It’s so much wider than just Greek and Italian cuisine, and may cover a lot of healthy Middle Eastern foods as well.

“Take Lebanese food for example. It’s got quite a lot of fruits and vegetables compared to some other national cuisines. The other good thing about the traditional Lebanese diet is that it is rich in whole grains, olive oils, nuts and seeds.”

“But there’s definitely more to the Mediterranean diet than we think. It’s so much wider than just Greek and Italian cuisine, and may cover a lot of healthy Middle Eastern foods as well.

Authentic, traditional Lebanese food is best described in a chapter from the book Wild-Type Food in Different Cultures, led by Nahla Hwalla, as a Mediterranean diet that includes “a collection of minimally processed vegetarian recipes, in addition to an abundance of fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and nuts”.

“Olive oil is the principle fat used, replacing other sources, in addition to many other ingredients including wild edible plants, lemon, garlic and mint,” reads the chapter, published on Springer in 2008.

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Lucie Michael, a Sydney-based woman of Lebanese heritage, tells SBS that the traditional foods she eats at home are often a lot healthier than other cultural cuisines.

For example, she considers vine leaves (warah enib) – a Lebanese staple which requires vine leaves to be stuffed with meat and rice, and then soaked in lemon and broth – to be more healthy than a creamy pasta dish. 

“Lebanese food is healthier than a lot of the other foods I eat because most of the meals are high in protein and rich in vegetables,” says Michael.

“The fresh produce we use in meals is usually picked from one’s own backyard. It’s a common practice for many Lebanese [and Lebanese Australians] to add home grown vegetables to a protein in their meal.

“Lebanese food is also rich in natural flavours. So the Lebanese food [we make at home] has minimal preservatives and artificial flavours.”

Authentic fast food in the Lebanese culture also takes on a different meaning to processed meals in the West. Take the rustic dish, kibbeh nayyeh, which contains raw minced lamb blended with burghul (cracked wheat), spices and salt. Michael says it’s an acquired taste. “There’s no cooking involved here – all the preparation is done in one hit and it’s served 10 minutes before it’s eaten to keep it fresh.”

Another one of Michael’s favourite Lebanese dishes is mujaddara, a warm dish made with lentils, rice and caramelised onions, typically served with a cold salad.

“Traditionally, a bit of mujaddara and salad are eaten at the same time and loaded on the same spoon. It’s a really healthy dish that would often be served almost every day in Lebanese villages.”

“There’s no cooking involved here – all the preparation is done in one hit and it’s served 10 minutes before it’s eaten to keep it fresh.”

Rouf praises the addition of Middle Eastern ingredients like olive oil, cumin, tahini and za’atar to meals, and encourages the consumption of Arabic dishes that fulfil the vegetable-rich criteria of the Mediterranean diet.

“Hummus, made with chickpeas, is a great dish we all love,” Rouf says “One of the other healthy options is tabouleh – it’s full of parsley, tomatoes and bulgur wheat.”

However, the dietitian’s message of caution is to avoid fried Middle Eastern dishes. “You can bake falafel in the oven. Kibbeh can also be adapted to be a healthier version if it is baked not fried.”

Salmon kibbeh nayeh

Kibbeh nayeh is typically made of raw lamb or beef mince but this version combines Japanese & Lebanese tastes by using salmon. If you wish to make this in larger quantities (and feed that enormous family!), it’s best to process in batches and keep each batch in the freezer while you do the next. Food Safari Water

Rouf also stresses that you should use low fat cuts of meat and focus on portion control. “Due to the famous Arabic hospitality, it’s normal to serve and receive large portions. This might be a problem for some people.”

Nahla Hwalla’s chapter on Lebanese food also reminds dieters that despite the traditional foods of many Mediterranean countries being considered healthy, modern urbanisation has negatively influenced upon the nutrition of some of these cuisines.

“Recent studies on food consumption patterns of the Lebanese young and adult population showed a shift in the food consumed toward increased intake of fat, milk, and animal protein and decreased intake of whole wheat bread and cereals,” the chapter, led by Hwalla, reads.

“It seems that the Lebanese Mediterranean diet is converging with a pattern high in saturated fat, sugar, and refined foods and is low in fibre.

“You can bake falafel in the oven. Kibbeh can also be adapted to be a healthier version if it is baked not fried.”

“Such a Westernised dietary pattern is associated with the increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.”

Rouf suggests that the best way forward for people who love Lebanese food is to adhere to a traditional, healthy diet that still maintains its ancient Mediterranean characteristics.

“Whatever your take is on the Mediterranean diet, the concepts behind it are great for your health to follow,” says Rouf.

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