EAT WELL: Asian-ising the Mediterranean diet

Yogurt with some fresh or dried fruit added to it makes a healthy snack. (Source :

THE Mediterranean diet came about when researchers noticed that the incidences of heart disease among the population in countries from that region were significantly lower than Americans.

They were curious to see what components were key in their daily diets.

Basically, they found that it was high in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, dairy and fish. The main oil used for cooking was olive oil, a high monounsaturated fat source.

Research shows that eating a Mediterranean diet cuts the risk of heart disease and can help reduce high cholesterol levels.

But wait a minute. We’re Asians, not Mediterranean. How can we adopt the heart-healthy elements of the Meditarranean diet and incorporate it into the food we enjoy? Let me show you how:


Choose food made from wholegrain carbohydrates like brown rice. (

Sure you love your rice. Which Malaysian doesn’t? But the grains in the Meditarranean diet are of the wholegrain variety, not refined grains.

White rice is a refined grain, as its outer layer has been removed. A whole grain still has all its’ components intact.

In it lies the fibre and rich nutrients such as vitamin E and B which are heart-healthy nutrients. Many of the typical Malaysian carbohydrates are refined such as white bread, buns, noodles and pastries.


Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice, multigrain rice, oats, millet, wholegrain bread, brown rice meehoon, mung bean noodles, ragi puttu, soya bean noodles or whole wheat pasta.  All these are available at your supermarkets and health food grocery stores. If you bake, use whole wheat or wholegrain flours in the recipes.

Try adding some other wholegrains into the rice cooker the next time you’re cooking your usual white rice.

I often add other whole grains such as oats, millet and quinoa to my rice just to add variety and ensure a more robust flavour.


The typical Meditarranean way of eating uses a lot of vegetables and fresh fruit. In fact, they consume anywhere between seven and nine servings.

Our Health Ministry recommends that half your plate be filled with vegetables and some fruit when you are having your meals.

Fruit and vegetables are a good source of fibre. They also have antioxidants that help prevent arterial oxydation, and a host of essential vitamins and minerals that are heart-friendly.


Since nutrients in vegetables and fruit are lost when overcooked, do consume them in various ways to get the most nutrients available. Sometimes cook them or just enjoy them as a salad or ulam.

One of my top recommendations to enjoy your vegetables is to quickly cook them into a soup. It’s a great way to have a variety which everyone in the family can enjoy. Children love soups!


The Meditarranean diet also includes nuts and dairy, something our Malaysian diet lacks. The majority of adult Malaysians give dairy a miss, thinking that it makes them fat because of its richness and creaminess.

Snack on nuts as they are good source of essential fatty acids (Source :

As for nuts, Malaysian tend to eat deep-fried peanuts and tidbits. All these may be nuts but they are a far cry from their original healthy forms.


When feeling peckish, give all those junky tidbits a miss and choose healthier munchies in the form of cheese, yogurt or nuts. Walnuts in particular, are a good source of the essential fatty acids Omega-3.

Portions are important — a serving of nuts is a quarter cup and a serving of cheese is 30g. A small serving is more than enough for good health. As for yogurt, a serving is one cup. If you want it a little sweet, mix in some fresh or dried fruit. You can also use yogurt and dairy in your dishes and salads. Add milk instead of condensed creamer to your hot beverages.


In tropical countries like ours, the main cooking oil used is palm-oil based. Tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut oil do have a higher percentage of saturated fat compared to other vegetables oils. Consuming too much saturated fat in your daily diet can cause your cholesterol levels to go up.

For heart health and to maintain favourable cholesterol levels, choose oils that have a higher percentage of unsaturated fat compared to saturated fat.


The use of proper cooking oils is important, as the large part of fat in your diet will come from cooking oil. Good oils also come with a higher price tag, partly because they are imported. It’s for this reason I encourage people to try to have more home-cooked meals.

The truth is, when you eat out, most restaurants will not use expensive cooking oils to keep their cost low. It’s just basic economics on their part. But if you cook at home, you’ll be more aware about investing in better ingredients to ensure your meals are as healthy as they can be. 

Of course, you cannot totally avoid eating out. But when you do eat out, choose foods cooked with as little oil as possible such as those that are boiled in a soup, steamed or braised.

By avoiding deep-fried foods when you eat out, you’ll be in a better position to keep your fat intake within healthy limits.


The Mediterranean people love their fish and seafood because of their proximity to the sea.

In their diets, fish is the primary source of protein, which is by far much leaner than chicken or red meat such as mutton or lamb.

Cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sea bass and cod are good for the heart because they are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Many of our local fish are not high in Omega-3. 


Healthy eating need not cost a lot. To be prudently healthy and still eat good food without bursting your wallet, have a good mix of some cold water fish and local fish. They will provide you with much-needed protein but without the excess saturated fat that will wear down your heart and spike up your cholesterol levels. 

*Indra Balaratnam is a consultant dietitian who believes in simple, practical ways to eating well and living healthy. She can be reached at


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