Heading for the Mediterranean this summer? If so, you should bring home those healthy eating habits

More than half of UK holidaymakers say healthier food is now high on their list of holiday must-haves. Two-thirds admitted to putting on weight during their trip, with 5 per cent boarding the plane home up to a stone heavier. This is despite the fact that 60 per cent of over-40s hope to lose weight on their summer break.

But it is more than possible to lose weight on a European holiday - if you chose the right food. Adopt the habits back home and you could significantly improve your health. Scientists have been studying the benefits of the Mediterranean diet since the 1950s, when research suggested that the diet and lifestyle of those living in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece could be adding to their life expectancy. The traditional diet is based around starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes and bread; beans and pulses; fish; and fresh ingredients such as tomatoes, courgettes and peppers, which grow plentifully in the warmer climates.

Generally, vegetables and fruits are low in energy and are good sources of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other bioactive microconstituents. Antioxidants are involved in DNA repair and cell maintenance and they specifically protect DNA and cell membranes against oxidative damage, including that induced by carcinogenic agents. It is therefore biologically plausible that diets rich in antioxidants protect against cancer, says the World Cancer Research Fund.

According to the charity's report, "Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective" the fibres found in vegetables and fruits may also protect against cancer.

It is thought that diets high in vegetables and fruits protect against excessive weight gain, which is a risk factor for cancer. The WCRF states that eating a diet that is rich in plant-based foods, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of cancer by up to 40 per cent.

So, which foods should you look for on your next holiday and which foods should you avoid?

SPAIN

Eat more...

* Rice

A good source of starchy carbohydrate, there are many different dishes that use rice so getting bored will not be a problem. Paella typically has meat or seafood in it as well as rice and vegetables, which is a good combination. It is often served in restaurants as a dish for two or more people so beware of portion sizes.

* Fish and shellfish

A good choice of protein, as it is filling and low in fat. There are many fish stew dishes to choose from, or just enjoy it grilled or baked.

* Tapas

This can be a good or a bad choice depending on the selection. Be careful not to over-order and then feel obliged to eat it all. Choose a mixture of vegetable, fish and meat dishes, and try not to order too many things that are fried, such as calamares or patatas bravas, because this will push up the calories.

* Tortilla

A potato omelette, also on the tapas menu. Eat it with a salad.

Eat less...

* Chorizo

This is processed meat that is high in fat and salt and should only be eaten in moderation.

* Churros

Doughnuts that are often served with thick hot chocolate for breakfast in southern Spain.

* Jamón Serrano (cured ham)

As this is cured it is classified as a processed meat, and therefore you should limit how much you eat. These types of meats also tend to be very salty and we should all limit our consumption to no more than 6g per day.

ITALY

Eat more...

* Pasta

A staple of the Italian diet, pasta is a good source of carbohydrate. It is a plant-based food that WCRF recommends we should be eating more of. Italians tend to eat their pasta (primi) before the meat or fish dish (secondi), so be sure not to order something from every section of the menu otherwise you may end up overeating. Opt for vegetable sauces, which tend to be tomato-based (and red), and avoid the creamy ones, which tend to be white in colour.

* Beans

There are many Italian recipes that use beans, particularly cannellini and green beans in soups, salads, stews, casseroles and risottos. Beans are an excellent source of protein, fibre, iron, B vitamins and are also low in fat.

* Fruit for dessert

Join in with the Italians and have a piece of fresh fruit for dessert, instead of having a calorie-laden pudding.

* Mozzarella

A medium fat content cheese. Served with a tomato and basil salad this would be a healthy lunch.

* Pizza

This is a good choice if the base is thin, you choose a vegetable topping, and there is a moderate amount of cheese.

Eat less...

* Salami

Very high in fat and salt.

* Tiramisu

Made from mascarpone and whipped cream, this is a very high fat dessert. If you fancy sampling it, share it.

* Gelato

With so many flavours to choose from it would be easy to overindulge. Have as an occasional treat.

GREECE

Eat more...

* Greek salad

Take advantage of the abundance of fresh produce with this salad of tomatoes, cucumber, feta and olives.

* Bulgar wheat

This grain is used in a variety of traditional salads. A wholegrain bulgar wheat is high in fibre, which has been shown to help reduce your risk of developing certain cancers.

* Kalamata olives

These olives are supposed to be among the best in the world. Olives are a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E.

* Mezze

The Greek version of tapas consists of a variety of small dishes which are shared with friends. You will normally be able to choose from a selection of dishes. Opt for stuffed vine leaves, tzatziki, or grilled meat dishes.

* Fresh fish

Fresh halibut, red mullet, swordfish, tuna, sardines, prawns and octopus can all be found on Greek menus. White fish is a good source of protein and oily fish is a great source of Omega 3 fats.

Eat less...

* Feta and halloumi

Cheese should always be eaten in moderation. Whilst it's high in calcium, it's also high in fat. Try to eat no more than a matchbox-sized portion a day.

* Traditional Greek pastries

Baklava made from filo pastry, honey and nuts are high in fat and sugar. Treat yourself now and again.

* Moussaka

A popular dish made from aubergine, tomato, minced lamb and potatoes cooked in a rich, creamy sauce and topped with cheese. A high fat dish, eat in moderation.

* Taramasalata

A dip made from fish eggs and olive oil. It is high in salt and fat.

FRANCE

Eat more...

* Ratatouille

This traditional dish comes from Nice and is made with fresh tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, onions and aubergine. Courgettes are a source of beta carotene, vitamin C and folate.

* Moules marinières

A dish made from mussels cooked in white wine, and served throughout France. Mussels are low in salt, fat and cholesterol and high in protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

* Bouillabaisse

A tomato and fish stew, high in protein and the antioxidant vitamins C and E.

* Salad niçoise

A healthy mixture of tuna, green beans, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and olives.

Eat less...

* Croissants and pains au chocolat

These pastries are very high in fat. Spreading butter and jam on the croissant will put you in danger of eating more than your RDA of calories for the day (2,000 for women and 2,500 for men depending on levels of activity).

* French fries

High in fat so avoid or eat in extreme moderation.

* Cheese

Eat in moderation. Try eating no more than one dish containing cheese a day and watch your portion sizes.

Eat up your vegetables...

Peppers - Half a red pepper provides you with all the vitamin C you need in one day. They're also sources of the antioxidant nutrients flavonoids and beta-carotene.

Tomatoes - Some research has linked eating plenty of tomatoes - particularly cooked, canned, and in sauces - with a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes are also a source of antioxidant vitamins C and E and flavonoids.

Onions - Contain allium compounds that have been linked to a reduced risk of some cancers. They are rich in a phytochemical called quercetin (especially red onions), which is a strong antioxidant.

Garlic - One of the oldest cultivated plants and a long-standing natural medicine. Its active ingredients are phytochemicals called allylic sulphides. These act as antioxidants.

Olive oil - This contains phenolic antioxidants which gives it its green-gold colour. It is also rich in vitamin E, another antioxidant, and healthy monounsaturated fats.

Why wait? Mediterranean recipes to try at home

Greek-style scallops

4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 lb scallops
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves crushed
2 large tomatoes seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
salt and black pepper
4 tablespoons crumbled reduced fat feta cheese
2 tablespoons of toasted pinenuts

In a large, non-stick frying pan heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the scallops and cook, stirring often, for five to six minutes until opaque throughout and tender in the centre. Transfer, along with the liquid from the pan, to a bowl and set aside. Cool the pan slightly and then rinse under hot water and dry. In the same pan heat the olive oil over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring often, for three to five minutes, until the onion is soft. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring, for one minute. Add the tomatoes, lemon juice, parsley, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for five minutes. Stir in the scallops with their liquid and bring to the boil. Top with the feta cheese and serve immediately.

Bruschetta with green pea and roasted garlic spread

1 large thumb of garlic
4 teaspoons of olive oil
10 ounces of petits pois (defrosted)
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
a dash of cayenne
salt and black pepper
I baguette sliced into half-inch thick slices

Preheat oven to 180C

Separate the cloves of garlic, peel the skins from the cloves and trim the ends. In a small bowl toss the peeled cloves with one teaspoon of the olive oil to coat. Then fold an 18 inch long piece of foil in half, with the shiny side out, forming a nine inch long piece. Put the cloves in the centre and fold the foil over them. Then fold the edges of the foil to form a sealed packet. Place the packet in the oven with the folded side up. Bake for about 35 minutes until the garlic is tender. Remove from the oven, unwrap the packet, and let the garlic cool. In a food processor, combine the garlic, peas, cheese, cayenne and salt and pepper to taste. Process the mixture until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a microwave-safe bowl. Cook on high for about 30 to 60 seconds until warm (or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, then heat). Brush both sides of the bread lightly with the olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet. Grill for another 30 to 60 seconds on each side until toasted. Spread each slice of bread with two teaspoons of the garlic-pea mixture. Serve immediately.

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