What is the Mediterranean diet and how is it good for you?

The food cultivated for hundreds of years here has become famous across the world for its sumptuous flavours and health benefits

Fresh vegetables from the El Prat Agricultural Cooperative, central to the Mediterranean diet (by Cillian Shields)
Fresh vegetables from the El Prat Agricultural Cooperative, central to the Mediterranean diet (by Cillian Shields) / Cillian Shields

Cillian Shields | Barcelona

April 9, 2022 09:10 AM

The Mediterranean diet has become famous across the world for its sumptuous flavours, magnificent dishes, and wide-ranging health benefits. But what exactly is it, where does it come from, and is it really good for you? 

Basically, the diet is the eating habits that have been formed over hundreds if not thousands of years in the region of the Mediterranean basin – countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and more. Of course, the Mediterranean diet has also been enjoyed in Catalonia for basically as long as people have been harvesting crops and cultivating food here. 

The diet itself differs between the various countries, but there are plenty of fundamental elements that are shared across the board. Olive oil is used in basically every meal and is generally the number one source of fat for proponents of the Mediterranean diet, while olives themselves are a very common snack too. 

Fruits and vegetables are also central to the way of eating, along with a high intake of legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. A moderate amount of white meat, fish, and dairy products is also a part of the diet, while consumption of red meat, processed foods, and sweetened treats are limited. 

“There’s no dish that doesn’t have at least some vegetable,” Montse Lozano from the El Prat  Agricultural Cooperative explains to Catalan News at the Alimentaria food fair in Barcelona. “We have almonds, olive oil, fruits, it’s always based on very healthy products, and olive oil plays a key role in that in all the Mediterranean countries,” Victor Huguet from Oils of Catalonia tells us at the same fair. 

UNESCO heritage

The term ‘Mediterranean diet’ was coined by an American physiologist Ancel Keys when he studied the eating habits of locals in Crete and southern Italy in the mid-20th century. 

It has also since been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, highlighted not only for its richness in taste and nutritional value but also to acknowledge the skill, knowledge, and rituals of the people of the Mediterranean Basin. Here, eating meals is an act far more significant than merely consuming food; it is a moment for social exchange and communication, and an opportunity to open intercultural dialogue, placing an emphasis on the values of hospitality, neighbourliness, and respect. 

What are some Mediterranean diet dishes?

So, we know the building blocks of this cuisine – lots of vegetables, legumes, unrefined cereals; moderate amounts of dairy products and white meat; and not too much red meat or processed foods. But what are some of the best dishes of the Mediterranean diet

Firstly, good wine,” Cristina Bezares from the vegetable pickling company Rioverde tells Catalan News. “I really love to eat real food, so tomato, a good salad, a little bit of cheese with bread – good bread! Not like from the supermarket.” 

Her colleague, Alejandra Rovira, chose grilled salmon as her ideal dish from the Mediterranean diet, “combined with good gherkins is an excellent combination, with some red onions.”

Victor Huguet chose paella as his number one pick. “We can cook it with veggies, with some fish, with some meat, there are different varieties of paella. But definitely, paella is my answer,” he said. 

El Prat is perhaps known for two things: being where Barcelona airport is, and artichokes. As such, El Prat Agricultural Cooperative focuses their production mostly on artichokes, although they grow all sorts of vegetables. When asked about her favourite dish, Montse Lozano said she had to go with artichokes: “I really enjoy making breaded artichoke as a side dish. It could be paired with breaded goat meat, but always breaded artichoke on the side.”

However, she had plenty of more recommendations for anybody interested in trying some traditional Catalan meals – meatballs with peas and artichokes; stew (‘estofat’ in Catalan) with meat, potatoes, carrots, and any other vegetable you desire; fava beans or white beans with ‘butifarra’ sausage or bacon, but Montse points out that the star of this dish is the beans; cauliflower with bechamel sauce; cauliflower with potatoes; cabbage fried with bacon; ‘samfaina’ which doesn’t have a translation but is a dish made with diced aubergine, courgette, garlic, onion, and tomato, all cooked in olive oil, and can be paired with cod, tuna, sausages, or whatever you desire.

Montse Lozano also says that all of these dishes can be brought to life with olive oil and parsley. 

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Many studies down the years have found evidence that the Mediterranean diet is a very healthy diet to follow, and that it can help battle illnesses and ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Spain has the second-highest life expectancy in the world, only second to Japan, and if current trends continue, the Mediterranean country is likely to overtake the Asian nation in some years’ time. Catalonia’s life expectancy is around 84 years, while the EU average is 81.3. Of course, many factors are taken into account when calculating the life expectancy of a country, but undoubtedly diet plays a significant role.

“As everyone knows, vegetables are the best thing for health,” Montse Lozano says, adding that “artichokes are especially great for the liver. Every product has its own benefits, its own vitamins.”

Victor Huguet explains that olive oil can help reduce bad cholesterol and has polyphenols that are “great for blood pressure.”

Pickled products also have a huge amount of benefits. Cristina Bezares says Rioverde’s products don’t contain any sulfites and are a “very good probiotic for our children and for us as well because it’s a natural product” with no additives or unnatural preservatives.

New trends and twists

While the Mediterranean diet has been around for longer than any of us can remember, we’re now living in an age of shared information and globalization. More people know about the way of eating than ever before, and chefs, foodies, and the creative and curious among us have experimented with new ideas in the universe of the diet. 

Vermouth is a drink, but really, it’s so much more than a drink. The beverage is a form of aromatized fortified wine, but the hours of 12-2pm are known as ‘la hora de vermú,’ – 'vermouth time' – where people would typically drink the beverage accompanied by food like many of the pickled delicacies Rioverde produce and other tapas dishes. 

Alejandra Rovira explains that the ritual of enjoying vermouth is growing, and with that, there is a higher demand for more interesting tastes to pair with the beverage. She says pickled gherkins now come in a wide variety of flavours, from honey to spicy peppers mixed with the small vinegared cucumbers.

Victor Huguet has noticed a market push towards more organic oils. “I don’t know if we still have to consider it a new trend but obviously the ecological olive oil that is on the market. We are seeing that [sales are] increasing year after year and it’s a very interesting trend,” he says.

Meanwhile, Montse Lozano points out that “more and more, people are realising the value of fresh produce.” Times of crisis that shut down the globalized system of production we have, such as the pandemic and the strike of truck drivers, has made people think more about where their food comes from and the fragile system that can be scuppered so easily.