Searching for tips for travelling in Romania, I heard lots of praise for the country’s cuisine from vegan and vegetarian friends who had been there. When in Romania, I was told that this is because the population, which is predominantly Orthodox, still takes fasting seriously. Whereas fasting rules have been considerably relaxed in Catholic societies, the ancient tradition is a good reminder that religious restrictions historically pushed people to improvise and come up with foods that can be marketed as healthy and trendy today.

Traditionally every gluttonous carnival would be followed by Ash Wednesday and an obligatory period of fasting. Some people still refrain from meat and sweets some days of the week. Apostles’ Rings, made of unleavened bread with roasted almonds and sesame seeds, and honey cakes fill shop shelves. Few give much thought to the fact that the tradition creates an opportunity to enrich one’s diet. A recent BBC top-100 most nutritious products list places almonds at the top.

Except for pig fat, the whole list is pescatarian, with many types of fish, nuts and seeds. Here are some excerpts from the BBC’s list, products which are very easy to find in Malta.

1. Almonds

Rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids. Promote cardiovascular health and may help with diabetes.

6. Pumpkin seeds

Including the seeds of other squashes. One of the richest plant-based sources of iron and manganese.

11. Dried parsley

Parsley that is dried and ground to use as a spice. High in boron, fluoride and calcium for healthy bones and teeth.

21. Scallops

A shellfish low in fat, high in protein, fatty acids, potassium and sodium.

24. Frozen spinach

A salad crop especially high in magnesium, folate, vitamin A and the carotenoids beta carotene and zeazanthin. Freezing spinach helps prevent the nutrients within from degrading, which is why frozen spinach ranks higher than fresh spinach.

61. Red tomatoes

A low-energy, nutrient-dense food that are an excellent source of folate, potassium and vitamins A, C and E.

84. Pomegranates

Their red and purple colour is produced by anthocyanins that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

89. Common octopus

Though nutritious, recent evidence suggests octopus can carry harmful shellfish toxins and allergens.