Your Guide To The Atlantic Diet And How To Implement It

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In last year’s hit Netflix documentary, Secrets of the Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner travelled the globe to discover the secrets of communities whose residents live some of the healthiest and longest lives on the planet. Although he didn’t travel to the areas in northwest Spain and Portugal that border the North Atlantic Ocean, he perhaps should have; according to recent studies, the Atlantic diet that is consumed in the region is associated with a significantly lower risk of chronic health problems than many other areas in the world. In one study, the stats of participants that followed the diet were measured against those who didn’t. After six months, researchers found that those on the Atlantic diet had reduced levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol as well as a notable decrease in waist circumference. When looking through a longevity lens, the benefits are equally as impressive. Another study that looked at the health and wellbeing of over 3,000 adults in their sixties and beyond revealed that all-cause mortality was reduced in those who followed the Atlantic diet. “A diet like the Atlantic diet, which is low in ultra-processed foods and sugars and high in whole foods, antioxidants, and healthy fats, can significantly impact longevity,” says Nichola Ludlam-Raine, registered dietitian and BDA spokesperson. “Such dietary patterns have been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases and conditions that can shorten life expectancy, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.”

At first glance, the diet looks strikingly similar to a traditional Mediterranean diet with its inclusion of good quality olive oil, fresh fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables, but there are noticeable differences. While advocates of the Med diet will stretch to pasta for their carb quota, proponents of the Atlantic diet go a step further, with other starchy carbs like rice, potatoes and bread high on the agenda. Meat is also more of a feature, with lean beef and pork on the menu, while dairy isn’t demonised either; both milk and cheese play key roles. Thankfully, as with its Mediterranean counterpart, a small amount of red wine is also advised. “Being able to include [meat, carbs and dairy] allows more flexibility and enjoyment with what we eat,” says London-based dietitian, Reema Pillai. “Although it includes more starchy carbohydrates than the typical Mediterranean diet, these are always paired with good quality proteins and plenty of fibre-rich foods.”

The diet also places plenty of emphasis on eating seasonally, an important lesson we could all learn from wherever we are in the world. When food has less miles to travel, more of its nutrient value is kept intact, and less preservatives are needed to maintain its freshness. “Eating seasonally, as advocated by the Atlantic diet, ensures that fruits and vegetables are consumed at their peak nutritional value and taste,” explains Ludlam-Raine. “Seasonal eating supports local farming and reduces the environmental impact associated with long-distance food transportation. It also encourages a diverse diet as different produce becomes available throughout the year, providing a variety of nutrients and phytochemicals essential for health.”

If that’s whet your appetite, here are some of the key components.

Meat in moderation

Although other diets, including the Mediterranean diet, aren’t devoid of meat entirely, the Atlantic diet centres around good-quality cuts of meat such as pork and lamb, which are rich in nutrients like iron, iodine and zinc. That said, how you consume your meat matters if you do want to reap the nutritional benefits. “Being mindful about the way we cook meat can impact the nutritional qualities,” advises Pillai. “Before cooking, choose the leaner cuts of red meat, as well as trimming the visible fats off meat. Baking or roasting means that minimal fat needs to be added when cooking, and any fat exposed from the meat can drip away in the roasting tray and be discarded.” Rich, meaty stews, or cocidos, are a staple in northwest Spain and usually consist of meat slow-cooked in a pot of legumes and vegetables, a combination which wins both in terms of taste and nutritional value. “Being aware of what we serve meat with is also important. Always keep in mind that high-fibre plant foods provide many nutrients, ideal to serve alongside the meat. Anything from roasted or steamed mixed vegetables, to a large side salad with mixed beans, can make the meal balanced and even more nutritious,” adds Pillai. Cooking meat this way breaks down connective tissues, making it easier to digest, and can also increase the availability of nutrients like collagen.

Do go for dairy

Given that Spain is home to Manchego and that the Portuguese have a healthy appetite for eggs (they eat 220 a year each on average), it’s no wonder that eggs and dairy are prominent features in the diet. Eggs, often called nature’s multivitamins, are considered nutritional powerhouses, not least because they are complete forms of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that the body needs but cannot make. Astonishingly, they also contain small amounts of every vitamin and mineral required by the body to function, including choline, a lesser known B vitamin responsible for brain health. Cheeses like Manchego are similarly good sources of protein and contain important minerals like calcium, which is needed for healthy bone growth. It’s also a good option for anyone with lactose sensitivities because the way it’s aged means much of the lactose is broken down.

Think fatty fish

Fatty fish like anchovies and sardines feature heavily on Spanish and Portuguese plates and are a delicacy we all ought to be eating more frequently. As well as providing plenty of protein, fatty fish is abundant in B vitamins, vitamins A and D and mineral-rich iron and zinc. They’re also an excellent source of omega-3, which has potent anti-inflammatory properties and has been linked with a reduction in a wide-range of conditions like depression and anxiety and heart health.

Praise for the potato

For many years we’ve been led to believe that the sweet potato has superior nutritional value to white potatoes, but that’s not the case if you follow the Atlantic diet. It’s hardly surprising that they’re celebrated when you consider how prevalent patatas bravas and tortillas are in the region’s cuisine. “Potatoes can provide a great range of nutrients to our diet, including a high level of vitamin C, potassium and certain B vitamins,” says Pillai. “Potatoes, especially when eaten with the skin, provide fibre which helps to feed our gut microbiome, which can have a role in our health such as with immunity, digestion and also hormonal regulation.” If you really want to get the most out of your potatoes, eat them cold. In their raw state, potatoes contain type-3 resistant starch. This gets reversed by the cooking process enabling your body to digest it, but if left to cool and then eaten, the starch reverts back to resistant starch. Resistant starch is important from a health perspective because its resistant to digestion means it passes through your system and straight into your large intestine. Once there, the prebiotics contained in the potato feed your gut microbes and improve the overall health of the microbiome environment.

Opt for olive oil

It ought to come as no surprise that olive oil forms the basis of almost all food eaten and cooked in the Atlantic diet. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, with olive cultivation there representing 30.2 per cent of world production and 41 per cent of the EU’s production. In fact, its health properties are so revered that some Spaniards drink a shot of olive oil in the morning as a daily tonic. Although Portugal can’t boast the same stats, it is still central to the country’s cuisine. A great source of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants, olive oil can regulate blood pressure levels, improve circulation and reduce chronic inflammation, all of which help lower the risk of chronic disease including heart disease. If you want the best of the best, go for the cold pressed extra virgin variety, which means its quality isn’t compromised and its health benefits are retained.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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