The Spanish Mediterranean Diet

Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
A Mediterranean Market with Seasonal Produce and VegetablesA Mediterranean Market with Seasonal Produce and Vegetables

Extra-virgin olive oil, ripe tomatoes and sweet peppers, salad greens galore, heart-healthy garlic and onions, immaculately fresh seafood, plenty of legumes (especially chickpeas), and rice, bread, and big, flavorful red wines in abundance—the Spanish diet could be a prime example of the Mediterranean diet. And it was, not too long ago, and still is among Spanish who are either deeply traditional or deeply caring—or both.

But today diet is changing in Spain as it is throughout the Mediterranean world. Although some Regions of Spain, particularly Catalonia and Andalucia, have set in place programs to promote a return to the traditional Mediterranean diet, the fact is that in much of the country, diet is changing; in the last 20 years, Spain has become a country of meat and beer consumers. National per capita consumption of beer comes just after Slovakia and, surprisingly, just before the United States, while meat consumption over all has doubled since the 1970s. This is not good news.

The Mediterranean Diet PyramidThe Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

In its changing national diet, Spain is not unlike Greece and Italy; in all three countries, health authorities have reported disturbing trends toward what some call a “Western” diet, meaning one based on heavily processed food and fast food, replete with unhealthy sugars and fats and not much else of nutritional value. Much of this is produced by multinational corporations with little or no interest in good health, and much of the marketing effort is targeted directly, unmistakeably, and disastrously toward young children. Rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic diseases, especially among the very young, are evidence of the growing problem.

But all is not totally bleak. Andalusia, probably the largest producer of olive oil in the world, is promoting a healthier diet through an initiative called Instituto de la Alimentación Mediterránea which educates school children on the principles of a healthy Mediterranean diet based on olive oil. And in the northeast, the Foundation for the Advancement of the Mediterranean Diet, based in Barcelona, includes fish, cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables, among its recommended foods and beverages—and also, surprisingly, cava, the Catalan sparkling white wine. It’s not yet clear how effective these efforts have been. But if it is tempting to see them more as propaganda for local producers than as selfless motivations to promote good health, nonetheless, it’s obvious that educating children to choose a healthy Mediterranean diet is a good first step, no matter what the motivation. That means generous use of olive oil, for cooking as well as garnishing, lots of healthy legumes and nuts, pasta, bread and rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products such as cheese, and plenty of fish, something Spanish cooks and diners have always relished.

So what is this Mediterranean diet and how does it fit with Spanish traditions?

A Selection of Spanish Olive OilsA Selection of Spanish Olive Oils

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which was intended as a counter to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s industry-based food pyramid, was established back in the early 1990s at a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, jointly sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation Trust. The conference, which brought together scientists, nutritionists, and personalities from the world of food and wine, concluded with the remarkable recommendation that Americans should be paying more attention to one of the world’s healthiest diets, that typical of Mediterranean lands, with a focus on complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, plenty of seafood, very little meat, wine as an adjunct to a healthy meal, and olive oil as the principal fat. In the 15 years since that conference, evidence has accumulated that one reason for the good health profile of Mediterranean people can be traced directly to this diet, abundant in antioxidants and other phytochemicals, full of plenty of fiber from beans and complex carbs, very low in saturated fat from meat and dairy products, but high in good monounsaturated fats from olive oil and Omega-3 fatty acids from seafood.

Beyond that, of course, the dishes and ingredients that make up the traditional Mediterranean diet are delicious—easy to prepare and enjoyable for all ages, from infants just starting to eat solid food to folks in their declining years who need less but therefore more nutritionally dense fare. And of course for everyone in between who loves to sit down to a dish of something fresh and savory.

Even though the original Mediterranean diet studies did not include Spain (in the Mediterranean, they focussed on Greece and Italy), it is abundantly clear that much of what we now call a Mediterranean diet is really a traditional Spanish diet, and has been that way for generations, in good times and bad. The parents and grandparents of today’s modern Spaniards never heard of the Mediterranean diet. But they knew that there was goodness and well-being to be found in their gazpachos, their tortillas (simple, tasty omelets with a filling of potatoes and onions), their spare use of sausages and other cured pork products to enliven basic vegetable dishes, and above all their reliance on three supremely healthful elements:

• legumes such as lentils, fava beans and chickpeas (“Chickpeas,” said Richard Ford, traveling in Spain in the early 19th century, “are the potatoes of the land”)
• seafood of all kinds from salt cod to clams, from shrimps to sea anemones (“Spain’s great gastronomic secret,” said the late food writer R. W. “Johnny” Apple)
• extra-virgin olive oil that is the basic fat in much of the country, for cooking as well as for garnishing.

For non-Spaniards, looking to follow a Mediterranean eating pattern, Spain offers a useful, and very tasty, model. Take a look at a sample summertime lunch: start with a gazpacho, made from tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, and garlic, whizzed in a blender with extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of vinegar; go on to a rice and vegetable dish, made with a very small amount of chopped ham or sausage in the sofrito that starts off the cooking process; add a postcard-sized portion of Spain’s favorite fish, besugo or sea bream, roasted in the oven with slivers of lemon, red peppers, and a dose of olive oil, accompanied by a green salad dressed with more of that rich oil.

In winter, menus get a little heartier and this is where legumes come into play for there is scarcely a stew, olla, cocido, or puchero anywhere in the country that does not include some form of beans (but especially those ever-present, much-loved chickpeas or garbanzos) to go with small amounts of meat—usually cheap cuts that benefit from long, slow cooking—and plentiful vegetables such as squashes, root vegetables, onions, leeks, and garlic. Alternatively, sticking with seafood, the menu might include a handsome roast fish a la mallorquina with a profuse topping of vegetables, including leeks, sweet red peppers, tomatoes, and so forth. To go with such hearty fare, a Spanish winter lunch might open with a salad of winter greens, curiously almost always garnished with either anchovies or tuna, or with sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with rice and chopped vegetables.

Winter or summer, meals end with the simplest of desserts, fresh seasonal fruit, perhaps accompanying a custard flan, or maybe a slice of crumbling manchego, one of Spain’s great artisanal sheep’s milk cheeses, with a cube of quince paste, dulce de membrillo, to go with it. Accompany the meal with a glass or two of red or white wine, perhaps a slice of crusty bread, and follow it with a siesta—which may be an important contributor to the over-all good health profile.

The traditional Spanish eating pattern—as opposed to the actual foods consumed--is also typically Mediterranean: a minimal breakfast that almost always includes cafe con leche (which may well be the only milk that grownups consume), a big healthful lunch still to this day often followed by a 20- to 30-minute siesta, and a very light, sometimes very late supper, often made up of leftovers from lunch. Some dieticians have suggested that the pattern of eating in itself is one reason for good health in the Mediterranean, especially that siesta and the light evening meal. And of course physical activity also used to play a strong role—once upon a time, most Spaniards worked at physically challenging labor, whether in the fields or elsewhere. That is no longer the case. But if it’s impossible nowadays to imagine a world in which such activity is commonplace, nonetheless the health aspects of the diet itself are incontestable. With a combined push from the government and from the collected wisdom of generations past, Spaniards may soon come to realize that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain if they return to the traditional diets of their parents and grandparents.

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