Europe’s greatest Export?

What with the Brexit news dominating political discourse, and me just having come back from a few days in Mallorca, I thought a blog on one of Europe’s greatest exports might be interesting. I am of course talking about the Mediterranean Diet (MD) which is regularly touted as the best diet in the world, and has a myriad of health benefits associated with it.

I should say from the outset I’m a big fan. In summary, the MD is based on whole grains, eggs, vegetables, salad, nuts, olive oil, fish and fruit, with less emphasis on red meat, and with moderate consumption of red wine. However, I’m not sure there is a definitive handbook on this – it didn’t appear handed down on tablets of stone from the Greek Mountains for sure. Many of the recipes in The Life of Riley are pretty much the MD dressed up for the UK and overall, with one exception I’ll deal with later, the overall food balance of The Life of Riley food plan mimics the MD pretty closely.

So what is the evidence it is any good for us. Well the benefits have been extensively researched, and do show real improvements in terms of obesity & weight loss, cancer rates, life expectancy etc. This analysis by researchers at McGill university in Canada is just one summary of multiple studies showing how good the MD is for weight loss. There are also numerous studies on its wider health benefits, with one neat summary of some of them here. Only last month, a study by Italian researchers, reported in The Guardian, showed some exciting benefits for breast cancer sufferers in switching to a MD.

Sadly for those folk who live in Spain, Italy & Greece/Cyprus, the countries most closely associated with the diet, they don’t on average live any longer than we do in the UK. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, as these countries, by and large, have become urbanised, with most of their populations living in large metropolitan areas, where traditional food has been replaced with the homogenised processed food offerings and fast food outlets we know only too well in the UK. In the smaller rural areas this isn’t the case of course and there traditional diets still hold sway. We are lucky enough to own a villa near Pollenca Town in Mallorca, and have been going there for over a decade now, and there is a complete absence of fast food in and around that part of the North East coast of the Island, except as you’d expect in the tourist hot-spot of Alcudia. In the rest of the Bay area, traditional food remains the staple, both in supermarkets and on restaurant menus.

The one area of the traditional MD I would take issue with is the suggestion that it should be one low in red meat. In our corner of rural Mallorca, red meat is certainly a good, healthy part of the food mix. Cochinillo Asado (suckling pig) is a huge local delicacy, lamb and various cuts of beef are regular features on local restaurant menus, and you can hardly move in the delicatessens for Jamon Iberico (Iberian cured ham). I haven’t been to Greece for many years, but can’t believe that country too doesn’t have a strong association with meat (particularly lamb in the national dish of Moussaka of course). Italy of course is famed for its meat dishes too, although the prevalence of both pasta and pizza these days moves Italy down a notch or two in the healthy eating stakes as far as I can see.

Of course fish features heavily too across these countries both in shops and restaurants, but the de-emphasis on red meat in the MD as sold to the rest of the world seems odd – almost as though someone has taken the real, traditional food mix, and exported it with one part missing.

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that if you are a meat-eater, in a seven day week, having two evening meals of fish, two of white meat (principally chicken) and a couple of red meat is a pretty sensible balance (although I suppose you could swap one red for a third night eating fish if you fancied). I also quite liked this flexitarian approach highlighted by Toby Young in The Spectator, where at least one night per week is veggie only. His pay-off line of not going the whole hog, but half-hog, half tofu made me smile!