Southern Italy, Greece and Spain stand out along the northern Mediterranean coast as having what we know today as the “Mediterranean Diet.” The basis of this diet is very little red meat, eating fish and poultry at least twice a week and eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.

Olive oil is the key ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. It contains a very high level of monounsaturated fats, most notably oleic acid, which studies suggest may be linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. There is also evidence that the antioxidants in olive oil improve cholesterol regulation, making it good for the heart. People in the countries all around the Mediterranean Sea use olive oil instead of butter to dip their bread.

The diet of people in this region was first studied post World War II by an American scientist named Ancel Keys. However, the Mediterranean Diet we hear talked about today, and on which many studies have been done, only became popular in the 1990s. After his extensive studies, he realized it was the lifestyle and diet of people in these countries that reduced the chance of heart disease that was (and still is) high in America.

Today the Mediterranean Diet is synonymous with a healthy lifestyle. This Mediterranean lifestyle also includes leisurely social dining and regular physical activity, both of which are an important part of the equation.

There is no single Mediterranean Diet. Instead, each region across Europe and Asia from Spain to the Middle East customizes the basic diet to take advantage of food availability and cultural preferences. Eating food in its season, and which is grown locally, is also part of good eating. With the abundance of fruits and vegetables grown in these countries it makes the high fruit and vegetable base of this diet easy for them.

Today people eat on the run, often in front of the television, and rarely does the whole family sit down at the table together and enjoy a meal in western society. Home cooking has become a thing of the past, a skill that is no longer passed on, and ready meals have “made life easier” for working people. But all these things have consequences.

Processed foods are at the top of the list for causing bad health and obesity. Not knowing the true contents of these prepared meals recently caused a scandal that started in Europe but has extended to the Middle East, where they are analyzing their imported beef products, because of unlabeled horsemeat being found in frozen meals and burgers. Halal meat was not exempt from this, with horsemeat being found in burgers served in halal school dinners in the UK. All for the benefit of companies wanting to make food as cheap as they can to be competitive in the price wars among retail outlets.

Muslims today should consider the Mediterranean region diet which includes more eating fresh produce. This could reduce obesity and diabetes both in adults and children which are a problem in Muslim countries now.

Children who learn to eat a wide variety of foods early in life are more likely to enjoy and stick with a healthier dietary pattern for life. A wide variety of choices makes it easy, even for the pickiest eaters, to stick to and enjoy the diet.

You can embrace the Mediterranean style of eating by making smart food choices. Select whole grains for your breads, cereals, and starches. Choose fish, low-fat dairy, poultry, nuts, and legumes to satisfy your protein needs (include some lean meat as well). Bulk up on vegetables and more importantly reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by using olive or canola oil instead of butter.

The good news is that studies have shown that it’s never too late to adopt the Mediterranean lifestyle to increase longevity and reduce the risk of chronic disease.