Everyone, it seems, is raging about the Mediterranean Diet.
Headlines constantly praise it for lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s , inflammatory diseases and dementia– not to mention its fame as a way to lose weight along with a long list of other benefits.
In Spain, the Mediterranean Diet is not a thing of scientific journals or weight loss websites, it is just… normal. A core ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet, of course, is olive oil which is used on a daily basis in everything from salad dressings to stews and even desserts as well as in all forms of cooking such as frying, baking and marinating. Olive oil is bountiful, tasty and ever present with the highest quality olive oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), being extremely popular because it has the highest content of the chief active components of olive oil include oleic acid, phenolic constituents, and squalene. EVOO has the highest content of antioxidants of any oil in the world, period. Fresh fruits and vegetables are staples of snacks and dessert. Fish and seafood are plentiful for lunch, dinner, tapas and everything in between.
Following the Mediterranean Diet in Spain is not something people set out to do. It’s part of the way of life in this country.
The term ‘Mediterranean diet’ encompasses the set of customs, skills, expertise and knowledge synthesised over the centuries by the Mediterranean peoples, in particular in Spain, Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal, into a nutritional model based on the cultural environment, landscape, crops, preservation, processing, preparation and in particular consumption of food. This model, consisting primarily of high quality olive oil, cereals, fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, a moderate quantity of fish, meat and dairy produce, a variety of condiments and spices, all washed down with wine or teas, has remained constant in time and space.
Many countries in the Mediterranean region have longer life expectancies than most others in the world. However, one stands out in particular: Spain. According to a number of studies, Spaniards are projected to have the longest life expectancy by 2040. Spanish people, who in 2016 were ranked fourth in terms of life expectancy with 82.9 years, are projected to have an average lifespan of 85.8 years in 2040 — the longest in the world. They will relegate Japan — whose average lifespan of 82.9 years ranked them first in 2016 — to second place with 85.7 years.
So what are people in the Mediterranean region, and in particular Spanish people, doing right? Let´s have a look:”
- “El paseo” / The walk – this is a very extended custom in Spain. Not many folks go to the gym but 76% walk at least 4 times / week for 10 minutes or more (2014 Eurobarometer). Also, 37% walk or ride bicycles to work.
- High quality olive oil, ever present – Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world so it should be no surprise that olives and, in particular, olive oil has a huge daily presence in Spanish cuisine on a daily basis. Spaniards consume nearly 10 liters of olive oil per person per year. The recipes which include olive oil are endless.
- Red wine – Wine is very popular in Spain. The Mediterranean diet’s guidelines call for one to two glasses of wine per day. Scientists might say it’s because of the antioxidants, but Spaniards often say wine just goes better with the meal!
- Nature´s food basket – Natural products like fruit, vegetables, nuts, cereals and herbs are ever present in Spanish cuisine. The Mediterranean Diet guidelines suggest eating five servings of fruit and vegetables per day at least. Thanks to the huge variety of recipes and also the fact that fruit has dessert status in home cooking. It is also common to have fruit with breakfast, as a morning snack, and as an afternoon snack.
- “Siestas” / naps – Due to the influence of European and Western working hours, only 18% of Spaniards (Simple Logic study) still take a siesta after their midday meal. Siestas or “power naps” are very healthy. Just 26 minutes of shut-eye is recommended by the Spanish Society of Doctors for Primary Health as it improves memory, mood and keeps the heart healthy. However, it has to be done regularly to reap the rewards and also it must be kept short and sweet to be truly beneficial.
- A longer working day, punctuated by breaks – On average, Spaniards work 1,687 hours a year, 331 hours more than Germany, 173 more than France, 117 more than Switzerland but only 6 hours more than the UK. This is probably not positive for health
- More (and better) sex –According to onePoll.com, which interviewed 15,000 women from all over the world, Spanish men make the best lovers. Spanish women, meanwhile, have sex on average 2.1 times a week, according to a study carried out by Gedeon Richter while, for example, British women have sex 1.7 times a week. The Spanish may be later starters –19 as opposed to 18 – but once they get going, they manage to make it one of the pillars of their routine. Sex reduces the risk of brain and heart disease as well as type 2 diabetes, while refraining from sex could bring these conditions on.
- Spanish vocabulary is more upbeat – A study published by the National Academy of Sciences by Professor Peter Dodds from the University of Vermont, analyzed 100,000 words from the 10 most spoken languages in the world and concluded that Spanish uses more positive words such as “love” and “laughter,” which boosts people’s moods, more than negative words like “sad” and “crying.” The study, however, did not differentiate the Spanish spoken in Spain with the Spanish spoken in other countries.
- Recipes galore – There are endless region cooking styles with exquisite dishes, irresistible “tapas”, memorable “raciones” and mouth watering “pintxos” wherever one is in Spain. For example, the use of the humble tomato. In Spain tomatoes are titans of flavour that dominate dishes at every time of the day. From “pa amb tomàquet” or”pan tumaca” (toast with olive oil and tomato, sometimes with garlic) at breakfast to “ensalada de ventresca” (thickly sliced tomato with tuna belly, onion and olive oil) for dinner, tomatoes are ever-present in the Spanish diet. “Paella”, fideua and many different types of legumes based stews are ever popular around the country. See Resources for recipes.
- “Tapas” in the evening – The average tourist is befuddled over the difference between “tapa”, “ración” and “pincho” and it is often not fully understood that “tapear” could well involve far greater quantities of alcohol than food (though there is “the walk” from bar to bar). There is a saying in Spanish that roughly translates as “big dinners fill graves” so, generally speaking, Spaniards control what they eat. Reducing our calorie intake in general helps us to live longer and if we get the proportions of carbohydrates, proteins and fats right, the benefits to our health could be even greater.
A key and very important part of the Mediterranean diet is the food, of course. Here are some basic guidelines and patterns of a Spanish style food diet:
- High intake of unsaturated fat: Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) – used in salads, desserts as well as for frying, baking, cooking.
- High intake of vegetables – typically served with each meal (e.g. 100 g leafy greens, 100 g tomatoes, 200 g other vegetables / day, fresh herbs)
- High intake of pulses / legumes e.g. lentils, peas, soy beans, chickpeas – 2-3 /week (250 g / serve)
- High intake of fruit, wholegrain breads, cereals (unrefined) and nuts – daily fresh fruit 2-3 pieces / day, 3-4 slices bread / day, 1 cereal servings / day.
- Medium / high intake of fish e.g. tuna, cod, hake, salmon, ”blue”/oily fish such as sardines, mackerel.– typically 2-3 times / week (150–200 g / serve).
- Medium / low intake of dairy products, mainly yoghurt and cheese – yoghurt 200 g / day, 30–40 g cheese / day (fresh, semi-cured, mature).
- Low intake of meat e.g. beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, turkey, chicken – no more than 1-2 / week, very little processed meat, very little saturated fat.
- Moderate intake of wine – typically 1 glass red wine / day with a few alcohol free days / week.
- Low intake of sugar, sweets or sweet drinks to be avoided – replaced with pure, natural honey; desserts are often just plain fresh fruit
- MDF editor, “What is the Mediterranean diet?”, Mediterranean Diet Foundation.
- Intangible Cultural Heritage, “Mediterranean diet – inscribed in 2013 on the Representative List of the Intangibl Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, 2013, UNESCO.
- Buenavida, “Why do Spaniards live longer if they smoke and drink? Sex and tapas, says ‘The Times’ “, 8Nov18, El País.
- Harvard Health Letter, “Mediterranean diet linked to longevity, say Harvard researchers”, Jan15, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.
- Willet WC, “The Mediterranean diet: science and practice”, 9Feb06, Harvard School of Public Health, US National Library of Health – National Institute of Health.
- Tidey A, “Spain to have longest life expectancy in 2040: Study”, 17Oct18, EuroNews.
- Bonaccio ML et al, “Mediterranean diet increases lifespan”, 28Oct18, British Journal of Nutrition, Cambridge University Press, Healio
- Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Martin-Calvo N, “Mediterranean diet and life expectancy; beyond olive oil, fruits, and vegetables”, 17Apr18, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, US National Library of Health – National Institute of Health.
- Turespaña, “The healthiest flavours: the Mediterranean Diet”, SpainInfo.
- Bingham A, “The 10 Commandments of the Mediterranean Diet in Spain”, 4Oct15, Spanish Sabores.
- Levy J, “9 Major Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet”, 7Jan19, Dr. Axe.
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- Clark MA et al, “Multiple health and environmental impact of foods”, 28Oct19, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA).