Having recently read yet another article praising the Mediterranean Diet (MD) I decided to write this blog. Over the best part of 20 years I have read a great deal about the origins of the term and what it means. Having known a few people from rural areas of countries around the Mediterranean (Med) when I lived in Australia in the 1980s and knowing what they considered traditional foods from “back home” I always doubted that the MD was truly representative of what country people in that area ate in the middle to latter 20th century. Having lived in rural Portugal for the last 11 years my doubts are now beliefs.
The MD is generally recognised as being one promoted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health in the mid 1990s and constantly repeated by all and sundry ever since. It is supposedly based on the typical diet of people in Crete, the remainder of Greece and Southern Italy during the 1960s. There is quite a good Wikipedia article on how it all came about, including some earlier research and some subsequent studies. UNESCO has recognised the diet pattern as an integral cultural heritage of several countries bordering and close to the Med, including Portugal which strictly has the Atlantic as its shores, Gibraltar being the westerly point of the Med.
The MD indicates that a large proportion of daily food intake should be, and I quote, "abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts". What that all means is, of course, interpreted differently by different people.
Harvard also made the MD idea into a graphic known as “The Healthy Eating Food Pyramid” and another called “The Healthy Eating Plate”. These are revised from time to time to take into account recent research but follow the same ideas as the quote above – with some notable exceptions. Dietary vitamin supplements are now recommended by Harvard. If a diet is adequate then supplements are not necessary. If it is inadequate then it cannot be a healthy diet. Vegetable oils (the olive is a fruit not a vegetable) are also now recommended as “healthy”. There have been too many adverse research reports about the unhealthiness of vegetable oils for me to accept this. All vegetable oils are a modern invention, say about 100 years ago onwards, and an industrial processed one at that – nothing natural about it, and no long-standing use of vegetables as a fat source in any of the countries near the Med. In fact I am not aware of any country that historically relied on vegetable oil as a source of fat. I do not have any vegetable oils by choice, nor would I (nor have ever in my life) eaten margarine and similar spreads – always butter. Why does Harvard espouse chemical supplements and industrially processed fats?
So what do country folks really consume? It is necessary to generalise, there are exceptions – I have met a Portuguese vegetarian and a couple of teetotallers. Without question a lot of olive oil is consumed, people have told me of up to a litre a week for their household, but it is likely to be Virgin Olive Oil, not Extra Virgin, and from the olive mill where their, or their neighbours’ olives were pressed. It is poured on most dishes, cooked or uncooked. Often used as a dip for bread to accompany food. They also consume a lot of vegetables, fruit and some nuts – my wife and I eat about a kilo of nuts a week between us. I doubt many other people do. But these people also eat a lot of meat, cheese and eggs. In fact they consume a lot of everything, because they eat a lot. They also drink a lot. Almost every person I know here has wine with their lunch. I recall 4 or 5 years ago coming across two old couples (and I am 70, so when I say old, I mean old) about to begin their middle of the day break from picking olives. On the back of the donkey cart were two enormous loaves of bread, a huge chunk of presunto (dried ham) a heap of fruit and 4 bottles of wine. I did not see any olive oil but my experience is that presunto is eaten with dry bread, no oil.
Therein lies, I believe, the real reason these people live so long without much by way of illness – they cannot spare the time to be ill because they have too much work to do. To be fair, Harvard has always stressed the need for what they term “regular physical activity”. Most modern people do not have work that needs that regular physical activity, even housewives with their modern gadgets do not get the exercise of doing such things as laundry by hand. Although I know one old lady who in addition to working her small quinta and tending goats, still does, and in the river at that, and all year round – it is an exceptionally clean river. As a consequence people in modern sedentary jobs are not burning up the calories they would consume if they lived the peasant life, and so end up fat and often with associated health problems.
To go back to the original source of the MD, Crete, it is estimated that there were over one million goats and sheep on the island in 1990 just before the MD was widely publicised. And people were supposed to eat very little red meat? There were also “large” numbers of pigs whatever “large” means, and “some” cattle. These animals, plus hens, were and are owned in small numbers by virtually every country dweller around the Med. The number seems to vary according to family needs, but I would say from observations, usually between two and twenty. Some people raise more than they need in order to create some income. There are extremely few cattle owned by small scale farmers. Lack of adequate grazing is a prime reason.
On the other hand it seems just about everybody kills a pig on a regular basis. Add to this kids, lambs, and bountiful numbers of eggs for almost all the year. Further away from the equator hens need supplementary lighting to keep producing at a reasonable rate through the winter. In all my life, and that of millions of other rural people, nobody has ever asked how much home reared meat is eaten. Official figures of meat and egg consumption simply ignore this aspect of diet, because nobody knows. All animals are by law required to be ear tagged for food safety and disease control reasons (and in recent times an internal identification bolus in addition to the ear tags) but huge numbers are not so identified. It is wrong, and I do not condone it. Officially they do not exist, but their offspring are killed and eaten, as well as lots of cheese made from surplus milk.
Add too the fact that every little block of land owned by these people includes (apart from the necessary olive trees) wine grape vines. Nobody knows how much home produced wine and brandy is drunk either, because nobody knows how much is produced. Have a meal with, or just visit, any of these people and you will soon find out that it takes a persistent drinker to get through what they do.
I follow what I believe is really the MD, including using Virgin not Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I take oil in exchange for olives I take to the mill at Sobral do Campo. EVOO is for those with money who use it sparingly – a bit like drinking good Claret and Vintage Port every day instead of equally as satisfying less expensive wines. I also eat a lot more butter than anyone I have ever met, but then I still do a lot of physical work 7 days a week, and unless you do too, or exercise intensely several times a week, I think you would be better sticking to Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, but without the supplements and definitely without vegetable oils.