The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet constitutes a great
example of the evolution of nutritional habits in countries such as ours. Until
not long ago, the dietary traditions of the European countries on the
Mediterranean coast were not exactly prestigious.
Our size, in times where stature was considered
an indicator of optimal health, was taken as an example of our "poor diet".
The high consumption of some of the basic foods
in the Mediterranean diet, such as olive oil, did not enjoy a very good
reputation either, in spite of the fact that this diet originated in countries
that were the "cradle of Western civilization". Some of our most traditional
cooking styles, such as deep-frying – which was, and still is, a defining
characteristic of the Mediterranean diet – were also misunderstood. During that
time, the general opinion in the most technologically advanced countries
insisted on the inconvenience of this way of cooking, suggesting that fried
foods were not easily digested and that they were "fattening", in some cases
even speaking of toxicity. However, these notions have changed profoundly in
recent years, and frying has become a culinary technique of growing popularity
in many countries where people were formerly reluctant to adopt it.
Keys, Anderson and Grande, three investigators
from Minnesota, USA, were the first ones to demonstrate that Mediterranean
countries exhibited a lower death rate caused by heart disease, in a study
entitled “The Seven Countries Study”. This line of investigation opened a
valuable source of information by proving that Mediterranean diet is, to a great
extent, responsible for this beneficial phenomenon, particularly the consumption
of olive oil, which is at the heart of this nutritional tradition.
should note, however, that while the benefits of this diet are unquestionable,
this fact should not lead to a belief in a sort of “panacea”, a “one diet suits
all” sort of idea, because there are no such things as “magic diets”. What we
can certainly conclude is that the Mediterranean diet is a great prophylactic
measure, not only for cardiovascular disease, but also for numerous other
pathologies, including some types of neoplasia. However, when judging the
positive effects of the Mediterranean diet we should also consider other non-dietary
factors that are related to the Mediterranean culture, such as a more peaceful
lifestyle, less stress, the tradition of taking an afternoon nap or siesta, and
so on. For instance, we know today that elderly people from these areas usually
exercise more than those from less privileged climatic regions, resulting in an
increase in their appetite and food intake, among other benefits. However, these
non-dietary factors do not take away from the crucial role of the Mediterranean
diet in the prevention of the above-mentioned pathologies.
On the other hand, it is not easy to formulate
a correct definition of Mediterranean diet since, for one thing, the term does
not describe a strictly geographical concept. Portugal, for example, is not on
the Mediterranean coast yet it is the European country with the most typically
Mediterranean dietary tradition. On the other hand, there are great differences
in the nutritional habits of the people from those countries that do lie on the
Mediterranean coast, even from one region to the next of the same country.
This is the case with Spain. While the entire
country is said to follow the Mediterranean diet, numerous variations take
place, mostly due to the wealth of regional traditions. In our opinion, it is
possible to distinguish among three main areas:
1. The one that corresponds to the
Mediterranean zone itself, going all the way to the Atlantic border with
Portugal, including the Balearic Islands, and curiously enough also the Canary
Islands, even though the latter are not on the Mediterranean. This area follows
the most typical profile of the Mediterranean diet.
2. The north and northeast, where dietary
habits abandon, in a way, the general profile of the Mediterranean diet.
3. The Central Plateau, whose dietary profile
is somewhere in the middle of the other two.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that
in spite of these differences, at present all our dietary profiles fall under
the definition of Mediterranean diet.