You’ve probably heard of the “Mediterranean diet,” proven healthy by a very impressive amount of research. Spain, in fact, will surpass Japan with the longest life expectancy by the year 2040, and no doubt the healthy diet is a major factor in this.
However, this begs the question… what exactly is the “Mediterranean diet?”
If you search on the internet, there is a lot of information, from the foods that supply the nutritional components of the diet, to their benefits in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and incidence of cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
Following the Mediterranean diet alone, however, and seeing the same results as Spaniards do, would be very difficult, if not impossible. Using the diet to just lose weight or “to be healthy,” but otherwise carrying on with one’s life, ignores that the diet’s potency comes from being just one of several independent variables that, together, affect longevity and quality of life.
If you want the full health benefits found in the research on the Mediterranean diet, then it’s not just the diet you should be copying. You need to copy the Mediterranean lifestyle, too.
What is the Mediterranean lifestyle?
Even though Mediterraneans (especially Spaniards) are famous for taking long meals, most of life is lived between them. So, to get the full picture of the “diet,” let’s look at what happens when a Mediterranean is not eating:
1) They get outside.
The cornerstone of Spanish way of life is an emphasis on outdoor living. Being outside is largely considered the norm throughout most of the Mediterranean. I see Spaniards sitting outside from freezing to very hot weather – basically all seasons.
Spending time – socializing, strolling, even just sitting – in the open air is such a fundamental element of Mediterranean life, everything is built for it.
Houses and apartments are designed smaller, with maybe one small front room for gathering; meanwhile, every park, every plaza, and even street corners, have benches where I often see residents of all ages meeting to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
Local government invests in outdoor skateparks and other amenities that encourage kids to be outside. Football (soccer) isn’t a well-organized league for parents to push their select children through; it is a casual meetup of kids, unsupervised, who enjoy a game and the outdoors without worrying where it will all lead next.
Spending time outdoors has several health benefits, including fresh air, sunshine, greater energy, reduced stress and depression, and improved sleep. Most important of all – what I like the most – is it’s free!
2) They naturally incorporate physical activity into their daily routine.
Most Spaniards are not spending two hours a day in the gym pumping iron, but they are physically active and spend as much time outdoors as possible. Yes, you can still work out, but rather than designating a couple of hours artificially to “body time,” most Spaniards make it a naturally repeating part of their day.
Most spaniards don’t own cars, so a trip to the store is a 10 minute walk-exercise. Spaniards often walk to their workplace daily. They walk to the farmer’s market, the bakery, or the dairy shop. They walk to their friends’ homes; and when they want to do something leisurely, they go out for a walk! A daily walk can make a world of difference, as is taking the stairs rather than an elevator, or cooking from scratch and burning calories while one does it.
Living in Granada, we are more likely to walk, including climbing steep hills and steps, as part of our daily routine. We hardly see any overweight or obese people in Spain, nor big bulky guys with big muscles. Both men and women look fit, lean, and healthy.
“Convenience” is always nice, but the downside of making things too handy is the reduced effort and exercise one has to make, and like plastic straws adding up to a major ecological problem, convenient non-exertion can build up to break a body down.
There are no drive-through restaurants and meal delivery is unheard of (except for pizza). One has to go get what one wants, so people walk more.
Before we moved to Granada, more and more people were moving to Dallas suburbs, so we saw more cars and more traffic jams. One hardly saw people walking to and from the store, even if the store was close, because the store was “too far,” they had “too many things to carry,” or it was “too hot.”
In Granada, as elsewhere in Spain, public transport is excellent, with no stigma attached to taking it. Rich and poor benefit from the five to ten minute walk to the nearest stop from their house, and we seldom see a traffic jams except during special events when everyone is trying to get…outdoors!
3) They minimize stress.
The cost of moving up the ladder of success is how little time one has to enjoy the benefits of the new position, coupled with the added worries that inhibit the quality of life. Studies show that more money and power don’t make life easier; they in fact make it harder.
By incorporating frequent breaks, the Mediterranean culture has systematic stress circuit breakers throughout the day, week, month and year.
Daily, there is the “siesta” (or more generally, break) time, where, from around 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm, most stores outside the tourist areas close.
Weekly break is on Sunday where most every store closes (older Americans might remember that in the States).
To top it all off, most Spaniards shut down in the month of August for a vacation!
Study after study shows the effects of stress on life expectancy. An American can show a Spaniard his higher average salary, productivity, and total nation’s GDP, but then he has to hurry back to work. The Spaniard will remain to notice what a nice day it is and then go have lunch with his family or friends for a couple of hours.
4) It’s not just what you eat, it’s HOW you eat it
Spaniards, like everyone else, run on calories, so at some point there will be mealtime.
In Spain, the “meal” is not just about the food, it’s about what’s all around it. Spanish people like connect with each other through food, so meals are not about individual nutrition, they are about communal connection.
Want to stand out in Spain? Eat and walk. People in Spain sit down for meals with others to catch up and socialise. They almost never eat alone, and have a meaningful conversation (no complaining about work or kids or school) instead of sitting in front of the TV or constantly checking their mobile phones. Conversation doesn’t enhance a meal, it’s an important component of it. A typical lunch can last 2-3 hours.
Aside from the camaraderie, the benefit of a leisurely meal is that it maximizes the delay between the time you eat and when your brain registers that you’re full – around 15 minutes. Eating in a hurry disables your body’s ability to do this effectively, so, it is easier to overeat when you eat alone or on the run. The irony here is that, the longer one takes for meals, the less (and more healthy) one eats!
5) Oh yeah, about the food…
I suppose I cannot write about the Mediterranean “diet” without discussing at least a little about the food.
Fruits and vegetables, grains and, of course, olive oil, are abundant and come cheap. I can buy a grocery-cart full of fresh fruits and vegetables and pay under 10 euros!
The diet is low in processed foods. Cookies, crackers, and chips come in smaller boxes (not Costco-size!) and take up very little space in our regular neighborhood store, and are more expensive. So, our meals center around seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables and freshly baked bread (at 39 cents per loaf!).
Because there are no preservatives added, foods do go bad quickly, which forces us to only buy enough for 1-2 days, but this compels us to get out of the house more (as a health bonus!). At a minimum, we walk daily to get a freshly baked loaf of bread (did I mention it’s only 39 cents?)!
Next, less red meat… a lot less. We’re talking from 2-3 times a week in the States to 2-3 times per month. Also, eating less red meat is better for the environment.
And yes, you can still have red wine; the research on the Mediterranean diet suggests a glass or two per day. Spaniards drink more wine per capita than Americans, but you will hardly see the staggering drunkard or binge drinking here.
One other observation about the diet: kids generally don’t have their own menus and they don’t eat on their own. They choose the same healthy food from the adult menu and eat with the adults. Unlike in the US, where kids menus are designed to appease the child with chicken nuggets, burgers, and fries, kids in Spain don’t need to be “retrained” for healthy eating. They’ve been doing it from the start!
Natural Mixing over Counter-Balancing
The most common New Year’s resolution is about losing weight and exercising more. That’s why January advertisements are bombarded with diet and fitness sales for new diet programs, new diet pills, fitness gear, clothing, fitness equipment, and gym memberships. Most people simply just want to be lose some weight to feel better and healthier.
Would you take a bath by first getting in icy water, then scalding, content that the average temperature was “just right?”
Then why work and stress for hours, then artificially work out for two hours, and then micro-focus on what you eat? Quality of life is not about counter-balancing extremes; it’s about a natural (and relaxed) mixture of the best.
Jim and I are lucky. We live now in the Mediterranean, so the “Mediterranean diet/lifestyle” is just “the diet/lifestyle,” but it really can go anywhere, and exist wherever people want to have it. The trick is to find a natural blend into normal. I’m vowing this year to naturally drink more water and sleep more.
So, I invite all of you as a New Year’s resolution to pick one or two of these aspects of Mediterranean lifestyle and try them out. Choose something simple that you can do regularly and have fun doing it. It can be as simple as committing to 30-minute daily walks outside or have a long meal with family & friends regularly.
At the very least, invite your friends, and over some fish, salad (with lots of olive oil), and some wine, talk for two hours whether such a lifestyle is even possible, and then take a walk to think about it some more. The “must do” list will wait.