Ask anyone what they first think of when asked about the diet of those living in Spain and other Mediterranean countries and no doubt you will hear suggestions of fresh fruit, vegetables, salads, fish, olive oil and lots of red wine. I’ve sustained myself on a steady intake of Elizabeth David books, ‘Floyd on *insert Mediterranean country*’, ‘Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escape’, ‘Jaime’s Great Escape’ and countless other programmes over the last few years which allowed me to live vicariously before making the move here.However, my impression is that the reality of people’s everyday diets and lives means that the Mediterranean diet is increasingly becoming a myth. In a country and city where amazing, fresh produce and a dazzling market seems to be available on almost every street corner, it is shocking and saddening to see an ever increasing shift to the bad dietary habits and obesity problems from my own country and our influential neighbours across the pond.
As in most developed countries, all hands are on deck out in the workplace leaving supposedly little time for food preparation at home. Supermarkets as everywhere offer the enticing (for some) displays of pre-prepared, convenience food which is so alluring to people who’ve been out all day. The contrast in going to a supermarket here after wandering through a luscious market makes the ranges they stock seem even more depressing. Having said that, most supermarkets here still retain a fresh fish counter and loose fruit and vegetables which allows you to buy just the amount you need.
For Spanish families where the working day is more protracted by the long lunch break and they often don’t arrive home until 7 or 8pm in the evening, this must be even more seductive. Children also have long days, regular school ends at 5pm but most children’s timetables are cluttered with an array of after-school activities meaning they also get through the door of home at what seems a ridiculously late hour for a Brit. I’ve discussed with many of my students about their feelings on changing the working day and there seems to be a general concensus that a reduced lunch and shorter jornada would be advantageous, although many acknowledge that’s unlikely to be the case in other parts of the country, particularly in Southern Spain where the long lunch break is held dear.
The primary school children I teach twice weekly have a fifteen minute merienda snack break before we begin our class. It is a rare day when I see them eating fruit or a sandwich, unless the traditional Catalan chocolate sandwich would classify as a ‘proper’ one. Yes, it really is what it states, a small bar of chocolate between two pieces of bread. What I see an abundance of are bags of chocolate cereals (one boy proudly proclaiming to me that he got through a whole boxful every day that his mother put in a bag for him), flaccid, palid, unappetising chocolate filled madalena cakes, bags of mini ‘Oreos’, factory manufactured sugared doughnuts in plastic packaging and similar that fill them sufficiently with glucose to send them on a rush for the duration of our class.I would make a good guess that when they’ve endured their long days of education and activities the evening meal often comes from a handy supermarket pack.
And so, as a swing is made towards following the dietary lead of the Brits and the Americans, so too are the figures for obesity. According to figures published in El Mundo newspaper this spring from the WHO, Spain’s National Institute of Statistics and the Spanish Society for the Study of Obesity, childhood obesity has increased drastically in recent years. Nearly 19% of Spanish schoolchildren (16% of Catalonia) are overweight and nearly 9% (7% of Catalonia) obese. Numbers are highest in the Southern regions of Andalusia and Murcia, which incidently are the two poorest regions of the country, once again food related health problems follow those least well off.
However, the figures that really demonstrate that the utopian Mediterranean diet is becoming a myth are the figures published in 2007 by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. These rank Spain and Italy ahead of the UK in terms of percentages of obese children aged between 11yrs and 15yrs (12%, 16.3% and 18.3% respectively), with only Greece and Canada standing between them and the leaders the United States where 30% of this age group are obese.
This is worrying stuff and a travesty considering the amazing selection, availabilty of ingredients and frankly quite baffling choices made away from these and towards low quality food. Will the country be able to recover and realise the direction it’s taking or will a Spanish Jaime Oliver rise to crusade against this tide and re-educate the nation?