A portrait of ‘the guru’ of the Mediterranean diet

by Lorraine Williamson
Mediterranean diet

We are hearing more and more about the relationship between nutrition and health. The Mediterranean diet is regularly mentioned in connection with a healthy lifestyle. The diet is not only very healthy, it is also tasty and can help you lose weight. The Spanish doctor and professor Miguel Angel Martínez-González is a know-it-all in this area. He is seen as “the wise of the Mediterranean diet.” 

Miguel Angel Martínez-González

Born in 1957 in the fishing district of Pedregalejo in Málaga, for over 20 years, he has been looking for scientific evidence to support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. He is now professor of public health at the University of Navarra and guest lecturer at Havard University in America. He owes his influential position to the famous PrediMed research that he set up together with other scientists. This is the most comprehensive study of the effects of the Mediterranean diet conducted to date. It had 7,500 participants from all over Spain.

Divided into three research groups, they were followed for ten years. With this study, Martínez-González and colleagues showed that following the Mediterranean diet reduced circulatory problems by 66%, the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30% and the risk of breast cancer by 68%. The diet contains many vegetables and unsaturated fats that reduce bad cholesterol and lower blood pressure. The 62-year-old professor has also seen his conclusions used in official nutritional advice in the United States.

Obesity in Spain

A pressing question that arises among many is why Spain suffers from so much overweight and obesity? After all this is the country where the Mediterranean diet was more or less invented. According to Martínez-González, many Spaniards think they eat healthy because they live in a Mediterranean country. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Mediterranean diet – everything in moderation

“Keep moderation, that’s basically the entire Mediterranean diet,” he explains. “You eat high-quality food that has been properly prepared, which makes you feel full sooner.” The professor notes with sorrow that younger Spaniards have adopted American eating habits. “They eat too much red and processed meat. We really do not have to become vegetarians, but research results do argue for a higher intake of vegetable proteins over animal ones. This significantly reduces mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“Martínez-González sees the Mediterranean diet as the best option for your general health. This is mainly due to the consumption of a lot of olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes. “It is better to eat fish than meat. If you eat meat, preferably choose poultry or rabbit. In addition, it is important to reduce the consumption of sugar and salt and to lead a less sedentary life. “ 

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Pressure from the food industry 

According to Martínez-González, the cause of the altered diet of the younger generations in Spain cannot be attributed exclusively to people themselves. “The food industry is exerting tremendous pressure to make cheap and plenty of food available anytime, anywhere. Just look at which products in the supermarket are most within reach and at eye level. These are ultra-processed products with a high energy density because they contain a lot of fat, sugar and salt. Take ketchup, for example, it has nothing to do with tomato sauce anymore, there is no good biscuit to be found in our supermarkets and diet soft drinks are now an expensive way to replace tap water. Processed meats such as burgers and sausages should be avoided and instead of drinking fruit juice, simply eat the fruit. 

White bread

It is also clear to the scientist that “white bread is one of the biggest problems Spain has”. People get fat quickly from this type of food. According to the professor, we live in a culture of overfeeding. “Healthier options should be made much more readily available and cheaper.” The fact that people choose something unhealthy, and often know it, is because the unhealthy choice is made the easiest. “The extra push comes from the food industry.

That is why healthy eating must be stimulated by the government. I am a liberal paternalist in that respect. People should be free to choose, but they should be made conscious and protected against choices that are harmful to them. “The professor would like to see the government subsidise extra virgin olive oil, fruit and vegetables. This can be financed by levying additional taxes on the consumption of red and processed meat, junk food and sugary drinks. “With that you send a clear message about what is healthy and what is not.” 

Martínez-González indicates that some food companies use tactics similar to those of the tobacco industry. “There are companies that pay scientists and have the truth distorted because they get money for it, and that is very harmful.” The scientist himself took money from commercial companies on two occasions in order to be able to complete certain projects. “But never again. I am not attending a conference sponsored or organised by the food industry. That gives me the freedom to discourage certain products. “ 

Walking example 

The Malagueño is the walking example of what the Mediterranean diet does. “I am 1.78 meters and have weighed 70 kilos since I was 17 years old. For me that is a sign that I am following the diet properly. I can’t remember drinking soda and since knowing something about it I have been disgusted by fast food. My favorite dish is ajoblanco [Andalusian cold almond garlic soup]. “He grew up as the eldest of four brothers on traditional gazpachos, fried fish or his mother’s porra antequerana. His great example was his father, a general practitioner dedicated to improving the situation of diabetes patients. “I heard about proteins, carbohydrates, fats … when I was eight,” Miguel recalls. His father practiced until the age of 83. The 63-year-old professor does not intend to keep it up that long. “Retiring at 70 is good enough. I still have a lot of work to do! “ 

The Mediterranean diet in 10 points 

It is the mix of dietary components and not one specific ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that promotes health. Martínz-Gonzalez: “The quality of fat is good, for example. This replaces other bad sources of calories. In addition, there are a wide variety of plant foods in the Mediterranean diet, including legumes and fruits for dessert”. “Things that are discouraged are refined breads and pastries, sweets, soft drinks and red meat, and processed meat. It’s actually a combination of more of the good things and less of the bad things, “he concludes.  

Those who want to follow the Mediterranean diet adhere to the following points: 

  1. Cook with olive oil instead of butter, margarine and cooking cream. Make sure you get at least four tablespoons of olive oil per day. 
  2. Eat vegetables twice a day, one serving of lettuce. A typical Mediterranean salad contains tomatoes, lettuce, onions, herbs and spices that are swimming in olive oil. 
  3. Eat three pieces of fresh fruit in a day and replace your dessert with fresh fruit. Sweet desserts are saved for holidays.
  4. Eat fish three times a week and avoid red meat as much as possible. If you eat meat, choose poultry or rabbit instead.
  5. Add legumes to meals three times a week
  6. Eat a handful of unsalted nuts every day. 
  7. Avoid sugary drinks and white bread
  8. Eat as little sweets and cakes as possible (maximum twice a week). 
  9. Use “sofrito” twice a week as a sauce over rice, fish, or pasta. That is a traditional tomato sauce with onion and garlic. 
  10. Drink red wine in moderation with a meal.
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