Is fast food killing off Spain’s famed Mediterranean diet?

Younger Spaniards are shifting away from their parents’ traditional eating habits

Guillermo Altares
The Antón Martín food market in Madrid.
The Antón Martín food market in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez

The profusion of fast food restaurants in historical city centers along the Mediterranean – where the most popular menu item is often a dish of spaghetti swimming in a pool of industrially produced carbonara sauce – is just one of the signs that a slow but inexorable change is underway: the end of the Mediterranean diet.

This dietary change conceals a social transformation that goes far beyond food. The Mediterranean diet, once a way of life as much as a way of eating, has morphed into something that looks more like a medical recommendation than a reflection of social mores.

Lots of vegetables, little meat

G. A.

The Mediterranean diet as a nutritional concept was born after World War II and based on research by the US doctor Ancel Keys, whose Seven Countries Study found a much lower incidence of cardio-vascular disease in southern Mediterranean countries than in northern Europe or North America. This was basically a poor man's diet, featuring lots of vegetables and little meat, and was eaten by people who worked hard in the fields. It also reflected the food shortages of Europe's postwar era.

According to the Mediterranean Diet Foundation, its foundations are "olive oil, an abundance of foods of vegetable origin (fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts), bread and food made from cereals (pasta, rice); seasonal products that have undergone little or no processing; dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt), moderate amounts of red meat, if possible as part of stews; a lot of fish; water and wine but only with meals, and daily physical activity."

Unesco, which designated the Mediterranean diet an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity item after being petitioned by Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal, defines it as a kind of diet that "emphasizes values of hospitality, neighborhoods, inter-cultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity."

A June report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) notes that the region is shifting away from its traditional diet, and warns that the effects of this shift go beyond nutrition.

“The abandonment of traditional habits and the emergence of new lifestyles associated with socio-economic changes pose important threats to the preservation and transmission of the Mediterranean diet to future generations,” reads the report Mediterranean Food Consumption Patterns.

One of the white paper’s key messages is that “it is urgent to preserve the cultural heritage of the Mediterranean diet as an outstanding resource for sustainable development as it contributes to promoting local production and consumption, encouraging sustainable agriculture and safeguarding landscapes.”

A surge in ready-to-eat food

Stall owners at the Antón Martín food market, in downtown Madrid, have already noticed the transformation.

“People don’t cook as much as they used to, and you can tell that young people buy a lot of ready meals,” explains Lorenzo, who has spent the last 16 years working at a butcher’s stall. “We sell a lot more steaks than meat for stews.”

“The Mediterranean diet involves local fresh produce that is grown nearby, which is why it’s a bit more expensive and requires more time,” explains Lluìs Serra-Majem, a nutrition expert who teaches at Las Palmas University and one of the main sponsors behind the bid that got the Mediterranean diet inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity item by Unesco in 2013.

“It’s not just the crisis that’s influencing in the decline. The problem is also a lack of knowledge: you need to know how to cook fish and vegetables, or how to shop for fresh food... All of this is a very important part of the Mediterranean diet,” says Serra-Majem, who co-authored the FAO study.

The gradual disappearance of traditional recipes – visibly happening with pulses, for instance – consumers who increasingly buy their groceries at supermarkets rather than traditional markets, and the rise of convenience food in a world where nobody has the time to cook, all underscore the profound social transition underway.

A fishmonger's stall at the Antón Martín food market. Fish is an important part of the Mediterranean diet.
A fishmonger's stall at the Antón Martín food market. Fish is an important part of the Mediterranean diet.Claudio Álvarez

“We are living through the globalization of food,” explains Emilio Martínez Muñoz, a professor of physiology at Granada University. “These days, we no longer live on local, seasonal produce, but buy our food off the shelves of large stores containing a lot of ready-to-eat products. With the crisis, people were busier eating than wondering about what they were eating, and we are losing a lot of our food culture.”

Fewer fresh products consumed in 2014

The trend is mostly cultural, making its effects difficult to capture statistically. Yet the Agriculture Ministry’s 2014 report Food Consumption shows a decline in all products associated with the Mediterranean diet.

The study, which closely analyzes Spaniards’ eating habits, says that “the volume of fresh products that were consumed fell more (-3.3%) than other food types (-1.7%) even though the former experienced bigger price drops than the average drop for all food types.”

Between 2013 and 2014, consumers bought 3.1% fewer potatoes and fresh vegetables, and 6% fewer tomatoes. In the case of pulses, perhaps the dietary element that is disappearing the fastest from people’s tables, the drop was 6.1%.

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“We observed that fruits and vegetables are falling behind in Spanish diets, which are increasingly oriented towards meat and milk products,” reads the report.

Eating habits reflect a society at a specific historical moment. The pure Mediterranean diet, born in southern Europe after World War II, represents a society with few resources where people spent their time out in the field, with no access to supermarkets, eating what grew out of the earth and leaving its preparation in the hands of women, who were mostly homemakers.

“It is the historical expression of a specific time and economic situation,” says Sandro Dernini, an FAO advisor and coordinator of the Forum on Mediterranean Food Cultures. “What’s happening right now is not a decline, it’s a much more complex situation than that.”

“We are not living the way we lived in the postwar era, we are not a poor country and people have changed the way they eat,” adds F. Xavier Medina, director of the Unesco Chair of Food, Culture and Development at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

“The food industry is much bigger than it was a few decades ago. It’s a cultural transformation, it’s not a crisis but a change. And now we are in the process of analyzing where our nutrition is headed,” adds Medina, who also contributed to the FAO report.

A generational change

Ramon Estruch, a doctor who chairs the Scientific Committee of the Mediterranean Diet Foundation, brings up another piece of research that confirms the trend.

“In the PREDIMED study [Prevention through a Mediterranean Diet], which included 7,447 subjects living in eight different regions, the degree of adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet, on a scale of 14 points, was around 8.5,” he says. “Middle-aged and older Spaniards got a C+ or a B-, depending on how you look at it. But younger people scored much lower. In other words, we are losing the Mediterranean diet and are not even aware of it.”

With the crisis, people were busier eating than wondering about what they were eating, and we are losing a lot of food culture”

Emilio Martínez Muñoz, Granada University

“The key to this diet is the fact that it’s healthy food in a sustainable environment,” explains Ángel Gil, a professor at Granada University and president of the Ibero-American Nutrition Foundation. Above all, this diet is not just based on food but also on exercise.

“For many centuries, our species was not sedentary. We used to walk from one place to the next. But there’s been an enormous change: we’ve become sedentary, and that greatly reduces our energy consumption,” he continues.

Manuel Martínez, technical director at the European Institute of the Mediterranean Diet, which answers to the Andalusian government, admits there is “a growing shift away from Mediterranean diet-oriented consumer habits, and that in turn seems to be linked to a growing incidence of overweight individuals.”

“In a very broad study we are conducting on nutrition in Andalusia, we are not just analyzing how much people stick to the Mediterranean diet, but everything else that it represents as well, from the change in family structures to what children are eating, considering that the latter don’t take care to eat right unless their parents are on top of them,” he continues. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to launch initiatives to encourage this diet and the consumption of local produce, but we also need to foment physical activity, which is included in the Mediterranean lifestyle. Without one of its parts, the whole does not work.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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