Is the Mediterranean Diet a Myth?

Inglés | Joshua Burns

The Mediterranean diet is famous for being one of the healthiest in the world. Whenever there is a list done by health experts, it is always within the top five. In fact, when I was thinking about moving over, the idea of it was something that appealed to me. So, I was a little shocked after arriving when one of my students mentioned that the celebrated diet was a myth.

From looking at various sources, the general outline of the diet consists, firstly, of basing all meals on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. After that, you should eat fish at least twice a week, moderate portions of dairy such as yoghurt and cheese, very little red meat, a small amount of red wine -and, of course, use extra virgin olive oil. Almost everyone knows this and my student wasn’t questioning its existence but where exactly it is followed.

If we take for example my personal experience in Salamanca, I have noticed that many things from the traditional diet definitely exist. After moving to the city the way I ate changed and I began to consume more vegetables and more legumes, like chickpeas* and lentils. In general, I started to eat fewer processed foods. However, the main problem I noticed with the traditional diet in Salamanca is, of course, pork. The pork products in the city are exceptional, they are famous throughout Spain and the sight of the hanging legs of cured ham draws the eye* of tourists whether they like meat or not. And while almost everyone enjoys some chorizo or a slice of ‘empanada con lomo’, there are very few who would claim that it’s healthy for you.

This soft-spot* for meat can be seen in the diet of other Mediterranean countries as well. The Grecian diet with its creamy humus dip and famous black olive salad is what people in many countries first think of as the Mediterranean diet. And, just like in Salamanca, many of the stereotypes are true. According to one study done in 2008 the Greeks ate the most vegetables that year with 257kg per capita. That being said, just like the Salmantinos with pork, the Greeks love meat. While their consumption of meat like lamb or beef is lower than many countries, their average yearly intake per capita is around 80kg- higher than the famous Mediterranean diet says you should eat.

Many of the studies that talk about the diet mention that it is based specifically on Mediterranean countries in the 1950’s and 1960’s. So, it would make sense that rural places, which have a more agricultural way of life, are where it’s still closely followed. The most famous example of this is a village in the south of Italy called Pioppi.

Pioppi is famous for the number of its villagers that reach 100 years old and has inspired a diet craze* in the United Kingdom. The Pioppi diet is quite simply a modern take on the Mediterranean diet. It’s through some good marketing that Dr. Aseem Malhorta has managed to sell a diet plan that has essentially been known of for many years.

Although most Mediterranean cities, towns and villages don’t follow the diet as strictly as the villagers in Pioppi, there is still a noticeable difference in the health of people in general in these countries. Even with a bit too much pork, the number of people who have reached a healthy age in Salamanca and the surrounding area is very high. However, in more recent times a new problem has arisen: the Big Mac. American culinary colonisation has taken root* and young people are often opting for fast food instead of the traditional diet. According to various studies the obesity rates are rising in Spain with one study done by the London School of Economics surprisingly stating that Spain has the second highest rate of obesity and overweight among children in Europe. With this in mind it’s important to remember that while the Mediterranean diet isn’t a myth, it’s up to us to follow it.

Glosary

  • Chickpeas: In US English they use the Spanish word, ‘garbanzos’
  • Draws the eye: Catches your attention
  • Soft-spot: A weakness for something that may not be good for you
  • A craze: Becomes popular
  • To take root: to become established

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