Mediterranean Diet – Eat Well Live Longer

Mediterranean Diet – Eat Well Live Longer

Before setting up this website business I’d worked for 13 years in international schools and a university in Spain. Something that I noticed over that period was that children got fatter! Maybe that observation can simply be explained by my move from Mallorca to Madrid as the kids in Mallorca enjoy much more of an outdoor life than in the capital. On the other hand this was a period of enormous growth in technological entertainment resulting in too many children replacing footballs with Playstations and the like. But what about diet? I wonder how that explains a growing trend towards obesity over that period which continues to this day. The following quote from the OECD may come as a surprise to readers who are under the assumption that diet and weight aren’t an issue in Spain.

Adult obesity rates in Spain are higher than the OECD average, but child rates are amongst the highest in the OECD. Two out of 3 men are overweight and 1 in 6 people are obese in Spain. One in 3 children aged 13 to 14 are overweight. The proportion of adults who are overweight is projected by the OECD to rise a further 10% during the next 10 years.

SOURCE: www.oecd.org

The actual extent of this problem has surprised me having learned that Spain has the 3rd highest level of child obesity in the world which the OECD report puts down to unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. The long term implications of this trend for the Spanish state are worrying as obesity will lead to an enormous strain on the health service as patients suffering from heart disease, cancer and diabetes grows.

So where did it all go wrong? Traditionally Spanish families sat together and enjoyed home cooked meals as part of their daily routine. In today’s busy world this custom is dying out and too many people have moved away from healthy eating in favour of a diet consisting of too much fat and sugar. Tied in with a complete absence of exercise in many cases it’s not difficult to see the root of the problem.

So What is the Mediterranean Diet?

We’ve all heard of the Mediterranean diet but what exactly is it and is anyone actually eating it any longer? Personally I think that the Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle choice than a diet. It’s the way people living in traditional communities throughout the Mediterranean region have lived and eaten for centuries. The most important aspects of the diet include the following:

  • Eat plenty fruit, vegetables and salad
  • Regular consumption of pulses, grains, nuts, cereals, beans and legumes
  • Daily use of good quality olive oil
  • Frequent fish consumption
  • Limited amounts of red meat
  • Some cheese, yogurt and wine
  • Drink plenty water

The diet also emphasises the importance of taking regular exercise and the social aspect of eating together with friends and family. Just from browsing the above list you can see what I mean about this being a lifestyle rather than a diet. There’s no end to the amount of dishes that can be created within the loose definition of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ and there aren’t any rules on what and when you must eat anything. Certainly it should never be compared with the nonsense of all the fad diets that appear in our daily newspapers all the time which never work out in the long run. The Mediterranean diet is a way of life that will improve your overall health and could contribute to living longer.

Fast Food in Madrid Horror

I love Spanish food and one of the great delights of travelling around the country is trying the local dishes which are particular to that region. When I first visited Madrid I was horrified to see a McDonalds located right on Puerta del Sol in the heart of the capital. There’s just no need to go there! All around the centre of Madrid there are small dining rooms serving a different ‘Menú del día’ every day. Having worked for 5 years in Moncloa near the city centre I reckon I’ve been to most of them. One saving grace about McDonalds in Spain is that they serve beer! In fact if you ever go to watch a Real Madrid game go to the Burger King on Concha Espina next to the Bernabeu stadium. It’s a lot quicker getting a beer there than at the bars near the ground!

So changing family customs, a trend towards consuming high fat and high sugar foods, growth in fast food options and general laziness are all contributory factors in killing off the traditional Mediterranean Diet in Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean region.

Want More proof?

A major study of thousands of patients in Spain with a high risk of heart disease was recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The study concluded that “About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and even drink wine with meals” (New York Times). So clear cut were their findings that the study was ended as there was simply no need to continue. And bear in mind that this study was on patients who already were suffering from some form of cardiovascular disease so the advantages of adopting such a style of eating for healthy individuals goes without saying.

49 thoughts on “Mediterranean Diet – Eat Well Live Longer”

  1. Good mallorcan Olive oil is so healthy and tasty especially in Pamboli (olive oil on crust bread then rub in garlic and tomato) There are lots of easy and healthy cheap dishes to try from Mallorca. Mallorcan potatoes, steamed with Flora and fresh basil or sliced tomatos, red onion, fresh basil and feta cheese smothered in good quality Mallorcan olive oil. Try the almond cake (gatu) with ice cream.

    Reply
    • Thanks Linda

      There are indeed some great dishes from Mallorca, Frito Mallorquin and Arroz Brut are two of my favourites.

      All the Best

      Gerry

      Reply
  2. Hi Gerry.

    Not too surprised at the conclusion of the article. Teaching English at a Spanish language school asked the pupils what was their favourite food. The great majority answered ‘McDonalds’.
    Regards.
    Jim

    Reply
  3. Whilst I appreciate the idea of a mediteranean diet, the thing my wife and I found disappointing is that in most supermarkets ie: Mercadona, Mas Y Mas, Consum etc they do not remove outdated produce and I am talking about being out of date by a week or more. I had cause to return a couple of sweetcorn cobs that were nine days past their date, at the store they weren’t interested and simply said “take another one”. When we looked they were all out of date, again a shrug of the shoulders and the words “Es Espana”.

    Well Gerry, we now wait for our weekly market but I’m afraid that they are not much better but we try and you are right we do have quite a selection of vegetables which we make soup with, it goes some way to solving the problem.

    Keep up the good work Gerry, the information you pass on to us expats is invaluable, thanks for all your exemplary work.

    Best Regards
    Ken Ward

    Reply
  4. I agree with your article that the Mediterranean diet is disappearing, but the Spanish still seem to keep to the tradition of eating quite late, usually around 10pm. If they are eating a less healthy diet and then going to bed on top of it, it is no wonder that the weight is going to pile on. Children seem to eat late also, eat a burger then go to bed! Not the healthy thing to do.

    Reply
    • Hi Steve

      This is another factor I was thinking about when writing the article. So many people do seem to eat shortly before going to bed which is a bad move. Ironically many Spaniards are critical of Brits for eating too early!

      Cheers

      Gerry

      Reply
  5. Thank you Gerry what an interesting article, and what a sad fact. We see the evidence often with poddgy children feeding on large bags of crisps, and consuming copious amounts of shop bought cake! However, this food is cheap and many locals are suffering from the current economic climate, so may use these to ‘fill up’ their children. We are fortunate having olive trees that produce enough oil for more than 1 year, and of course fruit and veg are good, fresh and cheap from the markets.
    Please keep the articles coming, I for one enjoy them.
    Sue

    Reply
  6. Gerry
    We noticed – by going to see my sister in Sitges over a number of years – so admittedly a limited sample, that tapas bars and drop in for a bite and a glass of wine places were replaced with fast food franchises.

    Some were unique to Spain, like Pans+Co, but others followed like the ubiqitous BK and McD, and all the little kids were going there – whereas they had not gone to the bars. I think it was pester power and follow the leader – at just the same time as PCs became interesting alternatives to football etc.

    Sugar is big in these places – like Coke and Shakes – they can contain 12 tsp each – especially compared to the Catalan drink Horxchata. But the kids also want fries and burgers and sneer at fishes with heads on, salads etc. (Real food, raw food)

    Researching obesity for Digby Jones’s CBI in the early 2000’s I found a surprise factor … In the poor and those constantly stressed, the body over-produces a hormone called cortisol, that results in greater weight gain per calorie consumed. This is usually neglected for a cals in cals out approach that makes it easier to poke fun at overweight people. A little stress now and again is good, but if it becomes an ever present the body veers off into multiple unhealthy equilibria from cortisol overproduction. The fast food they eat gives them more fat tissue than the less stressed, and the body starts to crave fast food, with its poor glycemic readings. That stress differential between poor and rich is more politically challenging as it shows the high human toll of inequality and leads to worse outcomes in BP, CHD, diabetes, hypertension. You can see the inequality in the different death rates for the rich and poor even between parts of a single city.

    Reply
  7. Well ……since the introduction of cheap package holidays to Spain almost 60 years ago now there has been the insiduous influence of northern European tastes in food pervading the Iberian peninsula. Throughout the land there is now a plethora of American style fast food outlets, Indian restaurants and Chinese take-aways, all of which have an adverse effect on health. The Spanish also now patronise these establishments more than they ever did and it is this factor which has led to fatter Iberians.

    Reply
  8. This new trend in eating is not unique to Spain as here in the Caribbean fast food options have replaced home cooked meals. The stove has become an endangered species. Diabetes is also a serious concern especially among young people who have been weaned on fast food. When introduced at a young age their preferences become a lifestyle. Added to which the advent of technology has replaced outdoor activities. Young children sit at a computer and vegetate when they should be outdoors exercising their growing limbs developing their respiration. In most cases both parents are employed to sustain the budget. Single mothers proliferate and they too are out working, coming in tired with little time to supervise children’s activities and very often too tired to visit the kitchen. Result is overweight and obese children who grow into adults ripe for a myriad of diseases which puts a drain on the economy. A mandatory exercise programme in schools may be a start to stem the tide, as the worldwide attraction to fast foods seems too seductive to resist.

    Reply
    • Hi September

      Thanks for your incisive comments. Isn’t it dreadful that we are hearing the same story from every corner of the planet.

      All the Best

      Gerry

      Reply
  9. Hi Gerry:

    Each fall for the last 8 years I have walked 500+ km in France, Spain or England. Each Spring and Summer I prepare for this by walking at least 10 kms per day and eating along the lines of the Mediterranean diet. When I walk in Europe I walk about 25 km per day with a back pack. I lose some 20 lbs during the spring and summer and another 5 lb during my walk. Unfortunately, on my long-distance caminos I forget about my diet, the habit continues after I get back to Canada and I put on the full 25 lbs again. I am going to break this vicious cycle by going to Mexico for 3 months this coming winter in order to be able to walk and get exercise. I am 71 and take medicine for hypertension.

    Reply
    • Hi James

      What an impressive way to keep fit! I’ve noticed on extended trips that I’ve done over the years to Asia and Australasia the weight falls off when active then piles back on once back at the computer day after day.

      Enjoy Mexico

      Gerry

      Reply
  10. I wish I had learnt of the mediterranean diet long ago, my health would have been much better than it is now. I love spain but dont think I will ever be able to holiday there again.

    Trevor

    keep up the good work ..i look foward to my Spanish emails every month
    thanks

    Reply
  11. I’ll keep your email & re-read it, & look again at the recipe suggestions; obesity is a result of many factors in the Western world & very difficult to solve. Maybe austerity will force people to reduce the quantity of “prepared” food they purchase, however the cost of fruit, vegetables & fish are increasing all the time too. Bad times lie ahead, with huge increases in type 2 diabetes especially!

    Reply
  12. Interesting article as I would not expect obesity to be that big of a problem in Spain. I think I am envisioning the Spain of 20 years ago before all the readily available electronic gizmos. Indeed the Mediterranean diet is a life style choice, much similar to the Weight Watchers life style which I have recently been following. My hip joints were a pain to say the least but an article mentioning if one were to lose even 10 pounds, that would make a huge difference to the joints and it sure did! I’m feeling better, walking better, looking better, and feel more confident with my plan to spend a month traveling throughout Spain in the fall of 2014. My choice to change eating life style was simple because I was not into fast foods but some adjustments were needed. It has taken time but nothing is instant (contrary to the electronic instant everything) for me, it is a journey through life. Looking forward to Spain. M.

    Reply
  13. I live in a very rural part of Spain where all the locals grow their own vegetables, and I am fortunate enough to have a huge variety of those vegggies given to me. The locals eat very little meat but fill themselves with lots and lots of salads and cooked veg. There are no fast food restaurants that serve burgers or hotdogs or the like, just local shops which only sell cooked chicken and pizzas, when they serve fries there are very few and usually cooked in olive oil. So the answer is stay in the rural areas of Spain and your diet will improve!!

    Reply
    • Hi Jenny

      Thanks for making this point which I think is hugely important. Rural communities continue to consume as they always have, it is the urban areas where the main problems lie (a worldwide phenomenon no doubt).

      Best Wishes

      Gerry

      Reply
  14. I too am always horrified to see McDonalds in Spain or Italy – but it sadly appeals to the young – hence the obesity in children ( though that is a sweeping statement -parents have a role to play in their child’s diet). I wonder if the mediterranean diet is seen as too simplistic and boring by young people. Fats and sugary diets are addictive too – whereas fruit and vegetables aren’t. I was shocked at the statistics of obesity in Spain – I too love the food when we visit -we are going in April for the first time to Valencia and then by train to Barcelona, my favourite city. M&S here are stocking some nice Spanish dishes – doubt they will last long though at the prices they charge – my favourite is cod with serrano ham in a deep lentil sauce – easy to make too.

    Thanks for the information – Pat

    Reply
  15. One thing that my wife and I always have a smile about when shopping in our local Consum supermarket is the range of breakfast cereals, all including chocolate in some form or another. It’s as if they have to have chocolate in them to get the kids to eat breakfast. We buy our Ready Brek oats I would hasten to add!

    Reply
    • Hi Gareth … It’s true. Avoiding sugar can be tricky in Spain. The ‘bollería’ is such a way of life.

      Cheers

      Gerry

      Reply
  16. In fact worldwide among the privileged countries obesity is catching up either due to its affluence or eating junk food as a matter of convenience since a high percentage of the household is not cooking at home. Obesity is becoming a social hazard as they say we ‘dig our graves with our teeth’. Also due to long working hours and people having to stay far away from cities the travelling time etc, bog you down as a result lack of exercise with the resultant effect – put on weight! To restrain eating habit requires very high discipline on one’s self. It is not easy. Best rule is to adopt the 80/20 principle ie eat only up to 80 percent.

    Reply
  17. Love everything about Spain and love reading your emails, this one especially, speaking as a heart attack waiting to happen! Hoping to retire and travel around Spain so all of of your articles are of great interest. Only wish l was there as the diet is easier to put into practise there and also it tastes better eating al fresco. Keep up the good work l look forward to your emails.

    Reply
  18. Everything begins in the home. I remember in madrid, business were run by a family of sisters, beautiful and beautifuly groomed. One in the morning, the other after siesta.

    Food in the home is most important. the WOMEN must take responsibility and feed the original Spanish food. Also, Families must walk. Rmemeber all this???

    Reply
  19. I completely agree about what you discussed. A food with a variety of grains, legumes, fish (salmon), chicken,red meat (thinner portions and not every day of the week) and plenty of vegetables, fruits, milk and water are of great benefit. Also olive oil, balsamic vinegar and natural condiments are not only flavor enhancers but natual remedies to prevent disease. I found out as well the benefits of a simple tea made out of fresh cranberries, a bit of natural honey and a dash or stick of cinammon to cleanse your system naturally, is very tasty and more beneficial than drinking coffee so often during the day. The cinammon is excellent for blood pressure control, the cranberries not only are antioxidants but will help you get rid off bloating, will cleanse the lymphatic system, and prevent urinary track infections. Also for diabetics the leaves of certain cactus (Nopales) are excellent to control high blood sugar, just chopped in regular salads, have a flavor similar to green beans.Growing up myself in Spain I hardly ever used transportation other than my legs to get every where, I understand times have changed but still, there are ways to exercise in daily bases without pumping weights in the Gym daily, a simple walk to a friends house, to the market or to buy bread around the corner helps you to keep the metabolism active. Also the meals with the family not only encourage a good time of sharing and bonding but allows you to eat slowly and enjoy fully the benefits of the meal. For children, small portions of chocolate are good if they are very active, and to encourage any form of activity either creative or physical in their spare time is great. When I was growing up as a child we did not have many commodities or toys, but we created new games all the times, we jumped on a foot throwing litte rocks in the ground, we played ball, hide and seek, robe, catch and simple things that did not require lots of money, and we grew contented with appreciation of any other amusement that came our way. Sometimes having more it can be less, we get to forget the true value of what we naturally have and substituted it for the immediacy of satisfaction. It has been sometime since I last visited Spain, Spaniards used to socialize often, even after work hours. The level of stress I understand was less than what it is today, but there is something about feeling contented in life, being expressive of your care towards others, and having a healthy communication. We work for a living but we don’t live just for work. We need to find a good balance.

    Reply
  20. I have noticed a big change in Spain over the years, it is now part of the EU and somehow it has lost its identity. Every year for many years I spent 2 to 3 months in my motorhome touring spain from north to south, but have not been there for several years and have no intention of going there again, Spain as it used to be is just a fading memory, I love to cook and years ago in Spain going to local markets and shops for fresh food was part of my holiday, now the Spanish diet is like the UK diet fast food from supermarkets, I suppose you could rename the med diet now as the EU diet. I know many campers like myself who don’t visit Spain anymore because it is no longer value for money plus Spain as been swallowed up by the EU and is now just part of the EU. REGARDS CLIVE

    Reply
    • Hi Clive

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t agree that Spain’s diet is so bad on a national level as many families still enjoy great home cooked dishes. The vegetable and fish markets are still there if you want them and many do. I think it’s in the cities where the problems lie as so many people have turned their back on traditional Spanish life. Having said that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that people visit Spain, it’s still a wonderful place to travel around.

      Regards

      Gerry

      Reply
  21. I’m afraid this is happening all over the world now, even in India! It is getting harder and harder to find freshly cooked local food in city centre restaurants as it is easier to heat up ready made meals which as we know are full of salt, sugar and worst of all, the dreaded palm oil. We have just returned from New Zealand, and although it is not cheap to eat out at least the food is cooked to order in most places. However in areas where a lot of maoris live, all that is on offer is McD’s, Burger King, Subway etc etc – not suprising there were some very large people.

    Last time we went to Barcelona one of the best value meals we had was the menu del dia in a little cafe just near Camp Nou. I too worked and lived in Mallorca in the sixties (well, don’t know when you were there!) and hate to see the worst bits of the 21st century filtering in!

    Reply
  22. I have lived in Spain for 23 years, spaniards eat Jamon in abundance (soooo salty), chorizo (soooo fatty) pastries etc for Merienda, big pots of Estofado made with lumps of lard openly sold in supermarkets (for the flavour!) Breakfast can often be coffee and doughnuts!!! And I wonder about this “mediterranean diet” ! My spanish 12 yr old grandaughter is overweight, BUT her spanish side of the family still insist on sweet pastries for merienda, WHY?? Because it´s tradition, its what they do at 5.30 every day. She also MUST eat a full lunch, (not a small sandwich with a piece of fruit!) And if I object as her British Granny, I am laughed at, and reminded that we are in Spain and they are eating the MED diet, which is the healthiest in the world -something is lost along the way somewhere!

    Reply
    • Hi Eileen

      I think you’ve just summed up the dietary life of a typical Spanish child. No wonder obesity has become such an issue. Calorie consumption must be at an all time high whilst energy use is at an all time low.

      Take care.

      Gerry

      Reply
  23. Hi Gerry

    Just come back from a holiday on the Costa Del Sol, stayed near Calahonda and went for tapas every lunchtime. The best one was in Ronda, a tiny bar just by the bridge. Fantastic food served by great people, we took two friends who had never visited that region and they where so impressed they asked if they could come again with us next time we go back. I think we may take them around the Nerja area and maybe impress them with the caves. Great article.

    Reply
    • Hi Mike

      The good news is that tapas bars and great Spanish restaurants aren’t going anywhere. If you want to enjoy the best of Spanish cuisine and avoid the junk food then it’s simply a question of making the correct choice. I also enjoy Ronda as there are many good tapas bars and restaurants serving mountain food. A great spot if you ever stay the night is the restaurant at Camping El Sur. You can sit on their terrace watching the sunset and their food is very good.

      All the Best

      Gerry

      Reply
  24. Hi Gerry
    This new trend in eating …the traditional diet being replaced by fat and sugar loaded junk food is not a problem in Spain it’s I feel a universal problem. Here in India too is the same problem…our very own traditional Indian diet is a well balanced diet which consists of salads, pulses, grains, veggies, curds, which the youngsters dont prefer. But though mc donalds, kfc, subway etc have made their own place here, we still have our traditional freshly cooked snacks available in the market and kids love them too. Basically everything is changing, the lifestyle is changing with the growth of technology it’s now one world. Earlier as it used to be here we had joint families and the females of the house didn’t go out to work but now with changing times there are more of nuclear families and both husband and wife are working specially in the metros. Therefore with this lifestyle change more preference is given to ready to cook and other packaged food available in the supermarket than consuming fresh home cooked veggies etc.
    Even attractive packing and publicity attracts kids towards unhealthy food.

    Reply
    • Hi Pooja

      Isn’t this such a sad reflection on our times. There are comments in this thread from all over the world and they are all in agreement that as economies grow and technology expands people move further away from traditional values, become physically lazy and their diet gets worse. the only saving grace seems to be that once again it is clear that traditional Indian cooking is still available if that’s what you want to eat. I hope to visit India soon & you won’t find me in McDonalds!

      Best Wishes

      Gerry

      Reply
  25. Hi Gerry

    Don’t know about the rise of “MacDonalds” in Spain, but every holiday I’m slowly working my way round the tapas bars of old-town Benidorm, and damned tasty they are too, and the wine’s not bad either. This particular project may take some time. As for the comments regarding “out-of-date” fresh food in Spanish supermarkets, it’s probably a good deal better than the [email protected] we get in ours.

    Keep up the good work.
    Cheers
    Dougie

    Reply
    • It’s a great job you’re doing there Dougie … keep it up! Benidorm has so much to offer than the fish n’ chip “culture” that the popular press harp on about. Some great Spanish restaurants and tapas bars if visitors can be bothered finding them.

      Reply
  26. Dear Gerry
    What can I say?. I think you have got the idea from all the comments. I agree with the person who said that PT(Physical Training) should be made mandatory. We have an apartment in Benalmadena and we go there for a few months at a time. When ever we go to places in Spain, we have always seen children allowed out on to the play ground in their lunch break and play and run around is encouraged. Have even seen middle school chidren play football in their break time. It is the parents that need educating. They buy children big bags of crisps and sweets instead of encouraging them with fruit or fat free yoghurt.

    Perhaps it would help if there is a Nutrionist who could go round the schools and give a talk on importance of healthy diet and exercises to parents it would help.

    Very interesting reading, Thank you Gerry, and good luck.

    Reply
  27. Hi Gerry food choices are one thing and very important but portion size is also very relevant. Even if food choices are good, if portion sizes don’t match lifestyle/ exercise levels, then weight gain will result. Just back from a trip to Bilbao where I enjoyed pintxos and excellent fish restaurants. The only thing I didn’t like was a surfeit of white bread. In spite of the healthy choices, I did manage to put on a few pounds. Oh well!

    Reply

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