Life and Death of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’

My thoughts below were inspired by a tremendous talk by Jamie Oliver at TED this week, if you have 20 minutes please watch it (below). It’s moving to see so much passion. His fight is against obesity, and to bring real food back into our lives, and it certainly got me thinking about what’s going on here in Spain too (my thoughts follow):


I wonder what happened to the Mediterranean diet? I was out eating some delicious Spanish tapas with friends recently – huevos rotos (fried eggs on fried potatoes), albondigas (meatballs), and chorizo, when one of us pointed out, “this food isn’t healthy, look at it! It’s pure meat and grease!” I suppose the glass of red wine counted for something…

I have no facts and figures, but there is a lot of embutido (cured pig products, jamon etc) and meat eaten in restaurants here in Spain these days, and not always a lot of attention paid to vegetables.

Still, I’m not sure it’s a huge problem yet. Good food still flourishes in good homes. But look at this report from 2008:

In Spain nearly two children out of every ten are obese which is nearly double the number compared to 20 years ago. This places Spain in third place after the US and the United Kingdom in terms of child obesity according to the International Association for Obesity.

That was two years ago, but a quick search on Google News shows the problem isn’t going away.

Like everywhere else in the modern world, life in Spain is speeding up. There is more to do, and less time to do it in. Less time for boring incoveniences like cooking good food.

I love the way the Spanish can talk for hours about food during a meal. It drove me mad for the first few years of meals with the in-laws, but now I relish the passion behind conversations about where, for example, to eat the best gambas in Madrid, or why everyone ate so many garbanzos in the 50’s and 60’s, and just how good they were.

But you only have to go into a supermarket, or walk down the high street, to see the same packaged foods, and the same fast-food outlets, that you find everywhere else in the world these days.

I hope there is still a chance for the future of real, home-cooked food in Spain. The increase in obesity in kids here makes it easy to presume that things don’t look good for the Mediterranean diet. I wonder what’s going on?

As I said above it’s moving to see so much passion from jamie Oliver, and his fight against obesity, his dream to bring real food back into our lives, but I think it’s more than just about food. Food is just one aspect of a better life we are losing.

We don’t just need to eat better, we need to slooooooooooow down, stop rushing rushing rushing, striving striving striving, and enjoy the good things – like good healthy food – in life again.

And Spain still has all the traditional values deeply ingrained enough to spearhead a return to that good life.

Let’s forget the Mediteranean diet.

How about going deeper still, and championing an entire Mediterranean Lifestyle again, before it too is lost forever in the running-running, rushing-rushing, hustling, bustling reality of our consumer-driven, TV-iPad-iPod-BMW-loving, fast-city-living, world.

What do you think? Do you see any chance for the concept of a ‘Mediterranean Lifestyle’ that includes that famous diet everyone is so fond of talking about?

29 Replies to “Life and Death of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’”

  1. Couldnt agree more – sadly due to my elderly relatives being ill recently we cant ‘do’ the actual Med this Feb. Never fear – Mrs C and I have booked 3 days off outr lives in a nice hotel close to a nature reserve north of Leeds. I will actually be closer to mum, aunt and uncle than I am at home so if anything happens I can be there quich – but ssssh dont tell them!!

  2. I think it’s always been the case that the diet in Castilla and Madrid differs from the heralded Mediterranean diet. Heavy meats, tripe and stews have always been part of the diet there. Having said that, you still get plenty of healthy tapas – think of the olives, Russian salads, patatas a lo pobre etc. Of course we’re all eating more sugary stuff nowadays which doesn’t help. To me however the biggest impact has been the rise of the car driver.

  3. You live in the Capital, so either: move out or grumble on 😉

    It will be much different in smaller towns for sure.

  4. I was once told by a Spanish teacher that the food you are offered when eating out in Spain has traditionally been meat-centric (anything else would be an insult), and that it was assumed that people eat more vegetables at home. She said she often wondered if tourists to Spain came away with the impression that the Spanish only ever ate meat since that’s mostly what you get offered in restaurants and bars. I said that my parents certainly got that impression when they came over to visit, and they aften developed a craving for vegetables after spending a few days eating out in Madrid.

    1. True, I used to get that craving too every time we went to eat out in a ‘meson’ with the in-laws… the menus were always the same, and not many vegies in site!

  5. Bill – there are a whole host of bean and lentil based dishes that are often served up as a course in the Menu del Dia (eg lentejas, ensalada de alubias, garbanzos con espinacas, fabada etc). It’s not unknown to have mixed salad or a gazpacho as a starter in summer either. Did you avoid the Menu del Dia? I take the point that meat is common, but there are plenty of places that serves fish/seafood.

    1. Mark – I go for a “menu del día” maybe once or twice a week, and I do often go for the beans or lentils when they’re on the menu. (I used to have a “menu del día” every day but soon found the pounds piling on). However it takes a while for tourists to work the system out, and also they tend to do touristy things during the day and eat out in the evening (when the “menu del día” is no longer available).

  6. Having only lived in Spain for almost two years we feel that we eat much better than we did in england. The meat (yes there is a lot of it) is of a higher quality than in the UK and there are hardly any ready meals in the freezers, although we do live near a small village in the Terra Alta region of Catalunya and venture down to the valley for the supermarket. So possibly it’s not very representative here.

  7. I LOVE the Mediterranean lifestyle – the relaxed pace, the family-centricity, the enjoying every moment and not stressing so much about tomorrow. But I find it hard to live this way when you’re not on the Mediterranean coast!! 🙂 There’s something about the ocean that I think beckons this kind of lifestyle.

    However, I do think it’s possible. I make the choice whether I enjoy life or not. I have to stay determined to enjoy life, to be thankful for the breath in my lungs, to enjoy the beauty of nature, etc. Simply put, I think we choose our lifestyle and we choose our attitude. If we want peace and happiness and a laid back pace we’ll do whatever it takes to get it, whether we live near the Mediterranean or not!

    As for the simple diet, it’s really easy when you don’t have a lot of money like us right now!!! Meat is so expensive, and things like lentils and beans are not. The processed stuff is also expensive. I think we end up eating healthier just because our money goes toward simple ingredients.

    That’s my 2 cents’ worth! 🙂

  8. I live in a pueblo near the coast in Almeria province.
    Menu del dia always starts with a big mixed salad.
    Today I had young green asparagus done on the plancha with half a hard boiled egg plus habas and jamon (because he wanted me to try them), followed by lamb chops on plancha with patatas a la pobre and a plateful of mixed peppers and onions fried in olive oil, followed by home made flan, plus coffee wine and water – 10 euros. A wonderful way to eat.

  9. I’ve often wondered why fast food is so slow to take its hold on Spaniards. The best theory I’ve heard is that, with tapas, Spaniards already have a way to get a quick bite (of tortilla, bocadillo, etc) from any bar, so the offers of McDonalds and Burger King don’t seem so convenient. Just a thought…

    1. I’d bet that if the ‘fast’ food chains actually served the food as fast as they’re supposed to, they might be able to increase their market share a little.

      (or maybe I’m the only one who misses getting in and out of the drive-thru lane in less than five minutes.)

  10. My wife’s Castillian dad was a butcher and then taxi driver. So lots of meat and then sitting down all day was the recipie for his colonic cancer, he’s still here minus a stomach. But my wife’s mum went to an early grave with colon cancer. I think that after the years of austerity in Spain, that generation couldn’t conceive of eating too much. My father-in-law talks of being lucky that he had squirrels to eat in the 40s/50s. I don’t think he’s unusual for his generation. It is these loving abuelos who are pushing their children and grandchildren to finish up everything and have seconds and then handing the kids sweets. My wife is a normal size but relatives are always telling her she’s too skinny. But she is of a more informed generation and I hope that will be the future in Spain. But her cousin has just moved over to London, she is a 27 year old chef and seems to like nothing better than McDonalds and turns her nose up at broccoli! So who knows?
    I watched the Jamie Oliver clip, he wasn’t as articulate as he normally is but the passion and honesty gets the message across. He is genuinely like that (my brother has been working with him on the TV stuff for years).

    1. How terrible that they have both been afflicted with colon cancer, I’m very sorry. By chance, or perhaps not, I was once taken to the airport by a 60+ taxi driver who told me how hard his life was since his colon cancer operation…

  11. I’ve become aware of this topic in the last week as well, and I find it very interesting. I read that Jamie Oliver wom the TED prize, but hadn’t seen the video above, so thanks Ben!

    I was talking about this topic with an adult student of mine (I teach English private classes) and she said that the lunches in Spanish schools are all arranged by nutritionalists and a monthly menu is sent home each month to parents. I saw the menu for her’s son school in Madrid and it did look quite healthly, with fish or meat and always fruit for dessert nothing like English school food! I couldn’t even see chips on the menu. She said a friend of her’s won’t let her son eat commercial cakes like “bollos” because of all the sugar in them. All his friend’s eat them and he is sent to school with a healthly snack, and they all laugh at him apparently. However, this mother is doing the kid a favor.

    I recently saw a program on called Too Fat, Too Young, and UK children in this program were in their teens and were 20-30 stone. They were bullied because of it. I think it’s partly the parents fault, feeding their kids the wrong things, or simply not knowing what fooda sre good for them but also it can be a self-esteem problem with the kids. It’s a vicious cycle – feel unhappy, so eat to feel happy, get obese, then get bullied – feel unhappy.

    I’ve also heard about a campaign started by Michelle Obama called Let’s Move which is all about getting the right food fed to the kids in America, and I will try and watch Jamie’s Food Revolution online when it airs on ABC in a few months.

    Relating this back to Spain, members of my family have said to me before “You don’t see fat people in Spain, as much as you do in the UK”. The diet is mostly different, I agree and the statement is true to some extent, but I see it changing.. and increasingly so. People in Spain have access to all the same chocolate, processed sugar and other foods just as much as the rest of Europe. The Spanish breakfast consists of cakes, biscuits and chocolate it seems! Even if children eat cereal, 90% of all cereals on the shelves have chocolate in them. What about all those churros and Porras? The Spanish do have a sweet tooth and confectionary is constantly advertised to them, everywhere they go.

    I do agree the pace at which you eat can have soemthing to do with how full you feel. You may take nearly an hour to prepare food for dinner, and it’s gone in 2 minutes.

    Everyone talks about the Mediterranean diet using olive oil and all that being healthly but in reality.. what is actually happening so children in Spain are becoming obese? This is reccuring time again, a repeated process. We have to find a solution or I see the figures tripling for child obesity in Spain during the next few decades if nothing is done.

  12. Get yourself up to Asturias Ben. Loads of bean based stews and not a vegetable in sight. Not the med of course. Living here in Valencia I think the Med Diet means Olive Oil, Oranges, Satsumas and little else. Meat and more protein is the norm.

  13. Right, Ben. Time to start cutting out all that jamón you like to eat. That would be a good way to begin. ?

  14. My first trip to Spain was in 1974. My latest trip was in 2007. I did not notice a major difference in eating habits, or in the obesity of children. I remember lots of little happy over-stuffed kids back in the 70’s. And I was there for 4 months and hardly ever saw a fresh vegetable…

    As far as “slowing down”… well I’ll bet Jamie Oliver is a jet-settin’ son-of-a-gun who never rests for a minute as he speeds around the world selling his philosophy and his books and TV programs.

    I suggest that you avoid his cult of personality, look around for good things to eat, turn off the television AND THE COMPUTER!! and relax. We don’t need a celebrity-chef guru to teach us how to live a normal life. Just do it…

  15. We bought a house in a small village (300 people) on the outskirts of Almeria 8 years ago. Then, there were two village shops and 5 bars. In the shops one had a tiny freezer containing, ice, ice cream, & frozen fish everything else was fresh, dried or canned and there wasn’t a plastic bag in sight. In the bars, all tapas were home cooked.Every family had land across the river valley where veg was grown and fruit/olive orchards were kept. Everyone kept hens, most had a pig and sheep or a goat or 2. We used to comment that one didn’t see the children walking the streets with packets of crisps or sweets like in the UK.
    When we moved here permanently 4 years ago we had already noticed the changes. Now we have only one shop and 3 bars, the shop has 3 large freezers 2 filled with convenience foods and I am offered everything in a plastic bag.No thank you!! You only get home cooked tapas at fiestas. The bars are mostly empty during the week, mostly due to the present financial crisis but I’m sure a few fresh fish tapas would get them in. We have watched the children grow and I can honestly say out of the 22 children at the village school 75% are now obese. I hear grandmothers and mothers shouting at their children that, they are too fat (the Spanish are brutaly honest) and then handing out chocolate covered buns & deep fried bunuelos an hour before lunch.
    The children now walk the streets with crisps, cakes & sweets, but who buys them?????
    As the elderly population leave this world to go to a better place, the younger members of the family don’t want the work of the land and the animals and all around us land is being lost and sold but there are very few buyers.
    We bought one of these plots and have been self sufficient for olive oil, veg and most fruit (can’t grow bananas here) for 2 years.
    To-day is Valentines day, the day potatoes and vegetable seeds are sown here in the village.
    Why not start the change in a small way and grow something you can eat. You can grow most things in pots or window boxes, better than watching TV. Don’t buy convenience foods or convenience tapas. I won’t even begin to start on the amount of salt the spanish consume or the amount bars put on tapas, could be one of the reasons our surgery runs 2 blood pressure clinics a week. We should be in control of what we and our children eat!!!! Are we???

  16. Am I the only one who thinks Jamie looks a bit chubby in that clip?. No wonder he keeps his shirt out of his pants.
    Anyway eating out on a daily basis is most of the times a bad idea, sometimes we have to put up with it because of work but I’d say is always safer and better to bring your own homemade food. If your work involves traveling out of town (and dining out with colleagues, clients, suppliers) then you are sure to put on extra weight.
    Other than that I have to say that in western countries like the US, the UK, Spain (and the rest of the UE) overweight has become a clear indication of socioeconomic status : the poorer and less educated suffer in general terms from obesity much more than the more privileged.

    1. The fact is, “the poor and ‘less educated'” in western societies DO have a higher incidence of obesity, and it isn’t statistically attributable to genetics. Those living below the so called ‘poverty-line’ have lives of comfort and leisure that the truly poor of the rest of the world would be more than happy to acquire, even if it meant they had to be fat, ugly and had an increased risk of cancer or diabetes.
      In my own personal experience, in order to actually enjoy the meals I’m eating, it takes a much smaller portion of my income to eat ‘unhealthily’ than it does to eat healthy, or to follow the mythical Med. lifestyle, an still enjoy myself as much.
      Sure, you can eat healthy for cheap, or even for less, but I don’t find it very appetizing.
      I am not overweight, but I don’t believe it has nearly as much to do with my extremely-sedentary lifestyle, and my eat-what-makes-me-happy diet, as it does with the fact that I was lucky to have become quite tall, and that I’m kind of ‘stuck up’ (I mean I have ‘high self-esteem’) no matter what my paycheck says.

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