How many times have you heard from a Spaniard that “Our diet is the healthiest. It’s the Mediterranean Diet” while citing the health benefits of Jamon and Spanish dishes. When asked about their diet, 7 out of 10 respondents would say they were eating healthily, despite the statistics showing otherwise. (Nestle https://empresa.nestle.es/es/sala-de-prensa/comunicados-de-prensa/ii-observatorio-nestle)
Today we shall look at the truths and lies behind the health claims of the Spanish Mediterranean diet.
What is the Mediterranean Diet anyway?
The Mediterranean Diet is a a diet that is followed historically in places around the Mediterranean including Greece, Spain and Italy and is rich in vegetables, fruits, pulses, fish and includes liberal use of olive oil and red wine. However, one thing that is essential in the Mediterranean Diet is the reduced consumption of meat. (NHS)
The Mediterranean diet is included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity but not for it’s health benefits. UNESCO highlights: “a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food.”
In fact, the Mediterranean Diet has a competitor for health benefits, the Nordic Diet. Scientists at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have poured 13.3 million euros into a project aimed at creating a “New Nordic Diet” to develop a counterpart to the Mediterranean Diet. In fact Nordic countries have very low rates of obesity compared to Spain, in 2017, around 23 per cent of people in Finland are obese; in Sweden, the figure is as low as 10 per cent; but in Spain two thirds of men are overweight, while 1 in 6 people are considered obese.
The rates are even more concerning with regards to children with 1 in 3 children considered obese according to the OECD. (http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/obesityandtheeconomicsofpreventionfitnotfat-spainkeyfacts.htm) Projections from WHO predict that over half of Spaniards will be overweight by 2030
The problem arises not from what children eat at school, as school lunches are carefully decided by nutritionists and are very healthy and balanced, but from what they eat in the home, crisps and processed pastries being the snack of choice doled out by parents to their children.
What about jamón?
You will hear Spaniards wax lyrical about the health benefits of jamón, stating that it is rich in vitamin E, copper which is beneficial for bone and cartilage, as well as calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus. So cite the jamón websites which refer to all these benefits and argue that it is low in calories.
But is it true? Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that jamón, along with bacon, are as dangerous to one’s health as tobacco. Processed meats have been strongly linked with cancer in recent reports due to the use of nitrites and nitrates in the smoking and preserving process. This is the reason why processed meats are so pink, the colour being a signal of the chemical processes involved.
The WHO published their findings after advice from 22 cancer experts from 10 countries who reviewed more than 400 studies on processed meats and found them to be amongst the 120 proven carcinogens, alongside alcohol, tobacco and asbestos, which may increase the risk of colorectal or even breast cancer.
The report suggests just 50g of processed meat a day amounts to an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer – sad news for the Spanish families who go through a ham leg a month.
Of course, if you for traditional air cured meat like jamón de bellota, the risk is lower, supermarket jamón which is a common staple in Spain just doesn’t make the cut.
What about red meat?
There hasn’t been as strong a link defined between red meat and cancer, but health experts do advise cutting down on consumption.
If you go to any restaurant for a menu del dia you will see that most dishes served are a piece of meat with potatoes, no vegetables in sight. A far cry from the “meat and two veg” rule of my childhood growing up British. In fact, vegetable dishes are few and far between in the typical Spanish restaurants… so much for the Mediterranean Diet.
Spaniards eat much more red meat than experts advise. One serving of red meat a week is considered the healthy amount, but Spaniards were consuming more than twice that amount at 2.5 portions per week on average.
I love meat like any other, sadly going vegetarian would not be an option for me, however I do believe with the current pressures on the environment and questions of sustainability it is recommended that we all lower consumption.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? So what do most people eat for breakfast?
- Processed pastries (high in sugar, especially for children)
- Colacao chocolate drink (something like a Spanish Nesquick, beloved by adults and children alike, it’s not uncommon to see adults in a local bar having a colacao before work)
- Biscuits? (I was really shocked when I discovered that this was a typical breakfast)
- Toasted bread with olive oil and tomato (this is one breakfast I can get behind and probably the only healthy breakfast on the list!)
In fact, according to the Nestle survey, 90% did not eat a proper breakfast or breakfast at all.
One of the reasons for growing child obesity in Spain is the prevalence of pre-prepared meals and sugary and salty snacks, it is very common to see parents feeding children potato chips and bolleria on a daily basis. Lack of food education and culture combined with busy parents working excessively long days mean that parents rely on easy pre-prepared meals when they don’t have time to cook at the end of a long day.
Land of Tuppers
So what is contributing to the increase in unhealthy diets and obesity in Spain? Aside from all the processed fried and sugary foods?
Spain is the land of tuppers or fondly known as “tuppers de mama”. Young Spanish people are becoming increasingly dependent on their mother’s cooking and many state that they don’t cook at all. Despite being passionate and proud of the food, most people from 20 – 40 don’t know how to cook the dishes they claim to love.
This is really a cultural issue. In Spain the family is priority number 1, the head of the household is the mother and here in Spain, mothers often create a dependancy so that their children continue coming home to mother. One of the main ways this is done is through the love of mother’s home cooking. If you ask most Spaniards, their mothers happily and willingly provide them tuppers for a week’s worth of food. You often see people travelling in train stations with large bags full of tuppers from mother.
Strangely, the mothers don’t seem concerned in passing down recipes or showing their children how to prepare traditional dishes as previous successive generations have done.
This means that a lot of young people are falling into laziness or losing the food culture that has continued through centuries in Spain and not learning to cook or sustain themselves. This is not the case for all young Spaniards but a hefty majority would openly state that they don’t or don’t know how to cook.
“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,”Ramon Estruch, a doctor and chair of the Scientific Committee of the Mediterranean Diet Foundation 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.”
“We observed that fruits and vegetables are falling behind in Spanish diets, which are increasingly oriented towards meat and milk products,” states the report from FAO.
“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, a butcher, who has spent the last 16 years working at a butcher’s stall in Anton Martin market.
A June report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) notes that by shifting away from the traditional diet, the consequent effects of this shift go further than nutrition.
Sadly, aside from contributing to a loss of food culture, it will also result in a death of traditions when the older generations who cook for their children and the traditional Sunday family lunch will be a lost tradition with subsequent generations unschooled in Spanish food culture and tradition.
“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.
Beyond eating habits, Spaniards had some other not so healthy tendencies. The long working days and late hours of dinner and bedtime meant that more than a quarter of Spaniards say they sleep less than seven hours at night.
The main reason given for not getting enough sleep was not having the time or being stressed (39 percent). Another reason was that people said they had trouble falling or staying asleep (29 percent).
Social Class and Obesity
Another factor that is scientifically linked to obesity is social class and is true worldwide. Wealthier families have better diets, purchasing more fruits and vegetables, also encouraging more sport and exercise in their children. Adults also participate in more sporting activities.
Lower income families counting pennies can not afford to buy this type of food frequently and are more likely to resort to processed and packaged foods that contain higher amounts of fat, salts and sugar.
Private schools also offer more opportunities to participate in sports in contrast with public schools which may offer only one class per week of physical education.
The surge in consumption of fast food has also contributed in the increase in obesity. Far from the values of the Mediterranean diet, the presence of fast food chains has an important role to play in the deviation from traditional diets to more Americanised ones, bringing the same problems to all corners of the globe.
Long Life Spans
But having not so healthy habits hasn’t stopped Spaniards from living long, full lives. A study in April showed that Spain had the highest life expectancy in Europe while Spanish women were found to be the second-longest living in the entire world !
So despite eating too much meat, smoking a lot, going to bed late and Spaniards still have one of the longest life spans in the world.
As mentioned before, the older generation follow the Mediterranean Diet more than younger generations, perhaps this is the reason that life spans have been lengthy in Spain until the present day? Will we see a trend in shortening livespans with subsequent generations?
If the diet isn’t the sole reason for longevity then what is the secret?
Some scientists put it down to physical activity and climate. In a country with good climate it is easy to maintain a culture of physical activity. More than 60 percent of Spanish people engage in physical activity other than walking, though surveys reveal that more than 40 percent of women don’t do any form of regular exercise.
Another aspect of longevity could be Spain’s social nature. Social relationships are important in Mediterranean countries and family ties are strong, when people have a greater sense of belonging to a community, or family, they experience subsequent health benefits.
So enjoy your wine and the sunshine and toast to a long life in sunny Spain!