Have Spaniards turned their back on the Mediterranean diet?
More than half of the country have swapped fresh fruit and vegetables for processed foods rich in saturated fats and sugars, according to new studies
“Nowhere do people eat as well as they do in Spain.” If that sounds like a cliché, it’s because it is. Spain has olive oil, it is one of Europe’s biggest producers of fruit and vegetables, and its rich culinary culture allows you to cook just about anything. But despite all of this, Spaniards eat just as badly as people do in other countries. While there is a lot of boasting about the Mediterranean diet, the truth is that less than half of the country follows it. According to the Mediterranean Diet Foundation, only 45% of Spaniards have a Mediterranean diet. And eating lunch at a beach bar – even though it is one of life’s greatest pleasures – doesn’t count.
The average Spanish person eats more than 50 kilos of meat every year compared to 25.5 kilos of fish
It is true that Spain has been a reference point for the Mediterranean diet ever since the American physiologist Ancel Keys defined the term in the 1960s. However, half a century later, we need to question whether the younger generation truly understands what it means.
“It refers to a series of dietary patterns that were discovered in Mediterranean areas 60 years ago, and are characterized by high consumption of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, dried fruit, olive oil and a moderate consumption of fish, dairy and red meat,” explains Tara Rendo, who is a professor at the Isabel I University in Castile and León and a member of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Diet. “In general, the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet are foods that are not too processed, that have a fat percentage that we can consider healthy,” she explains.
But now it’s harder than ever to follow the food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet. Nutritional guidelines recommend what food we should eat and how much, but we are not following them. “We are eating a lot of food from the top of the food pyramid, such as pastries, sweets and cold meats, and not eating the food that should form the base of our diets, like fruit, vegetables and whole grains – not with the right frequency or in the quantities we should,” explains Rendo.
Vegetable consumption down 40%
Spaniards are eating fewer vegetables than they did 54 years ago. A study conducted by the Spanish Nutrition Foundation (FEN) revealed that they consume approximately 269 grams of vegetables a day, which equates to 1.3 daily servings. This is 40% less than what was consumed in 1964. While fruit consumption has increased in the past few years to 1.5 daily servings, it still has not reached the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
Some nutritionists suggest going back to our grandmothers’ recipes, which used locally grown foods and included fewer dairy products and little red meat, because it was too expensive to buy at the time. It’s not a matter of forgetting about these products, but meat needs to be eaten in moderation. White meat can be eaten two or three times a week, while red meat should only be eaten once or twice a month. For many, this is hard to do, which is why Harvard University has compiled a list of tips to reduce meat consumption. It’s important to choose fish such as salmon, anchovies, sardines and tuna over red and white meat. But, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the average Spanish person eats more than 50 kilograms of meat every year compared to just 25.5 kilograms of fish.
Another problem is that we are eating fewer pulses. Consumption has fallen 60% in the last few decades to a yearly average of 3.1 kilos per person, which is far below the recommended three servings a week. In their place, new foods such as chia and quinoa have emerged, which are just as good as chickpeas and beans, says Rendo. “These so-called super foods can be considered just as healthy as fruit and vegetables. They’re compatible with the Mediterranean diet and can always be consumed in a healthy and balanced diet. However, we always have to be aware that they do not have superpowers, and that eating them won’t drastically improve our diet,” she explains.
Packing on extra kilos
The undeniable proof that we have abandoned the Mediterranean diet was presented in a 2017 National Health Survey, which revealed that 17% of Spain’s adult population is obese (Body Mass Index equal to or above 30). This figure rises to 62.5% for men and 46.8% for women if we take into account people who are overweight (BMI equal to or above 25). At the rate that we’re going, 27 million Spaniards will be overweight by 2030, according to a study carried out by Mar de Barcelona hospital.
According to the WHO, 40% of Spanish children are obese
What’s more, a study by the Spanish Society for the Study of Obesity (SEENO) found that 82.2% of people who are obese are not aware of it. People must understand the problem if they are to address it. It is also hard for Spaniards to recognize that their children have a problem, even though they are among the most overweight in Europe. According to the WHO, 40% of Spanish children are obese compared to 10% in countries without the Mediterranean diet, such as Denmark, Norway, Ireland or Latvia. Only 30% eat fruit every day and only 10% eat vegetables – which is the lowest figure in Europe, despite the fact that Spain is a top producer of fresh vegetables.
Products rich in saturated fats, sugar and salt are now the food of choice, accounting for 20% of our daily diet. It’s always best to opt for fresh and unprocessed foods, but it is also true that not all processed foods are the same and some are healthier than others. “For example, bags of fresh salad, oat flakes, cooked canned vegetables and frozen fruit... We can classify these processed foods are relatively healthy just by taking a quick look at the list of ingredients,” says Rendo.
Meal planning: The keys to the 21st century
Make no mistake, the Mediterranean diet needs to be planned. Often we know what we should be eating but, between work and family commitments, we don’t have enough time to do so. Fresh products don’t just appear in the fridge, and we’re not always perfect parents who give our children healthy dishes. It’s understandable, but we should look for options that allow us to follow an easy-to-prepare Mediterranean diet, says Rendo. “We need to lose the fear of cooking, and understand that we can cook fresh food and freeze it for the rest of the week. If we eat at work, we can prepare Tupperware with fresh food, especially vegetables and legumes. And always opt for fruit as a dessert and nuts as a snack,” she explains.
Fruit such as apples, bananas and mandarins are the best snacks for children because the skin can either be eaten or easily peeled. Sandwiches made with whole-grain bread and a healthy filling such as hummus, fresh tomato, or cheese, and natural yogurt with dried fruits, are also good options. And the most important ingredient is to never forget that the Mediterranean diet is a way of life, and it is completely incompatible with a sedentary lifestyle.
English version by Asia London Palomba.