The 2019 edition of the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index ranked Spain as the world’s healthiest country, followed by Italy, Iceland, Japan and Switzerland. To come up with these rankings, Bloomberg researchers use data from the World Health Organization, United Nations Population Division and the World Bank to grade different factors associated with health and health risks. Some of these factors are mortality, life expectancy, behavioral/endogenous factors (cholesterol, blood glucose, tobacco, prevalence of obesity, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, malnutrition, mental health…) and environmental factors like access to clean air, water and sanitation.
It is important to note that Spain not only has a mild climate but also a guaranteed universal healthcare, which likely impacted its position in this ranking. However, it is clear that many of the factors considered are related to dietary habits, so why don’t we talk a little bit more about the type of diet that Spanish people tend to follow?
The Spanish population (which includes me, born and raised on the Mediterranean coast of Spain!) generally follows what is known as the Mediterranean diet. I could rave for hours about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the healthy omega-3s in nuts, olive oil and seafood, and the antioxidants in fresh fruits and vegetables (ahem, and wine). Recent studies associate the Mediterranean diet with a decreased risk of dementia, and other studies link the consumption of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (present in fish) with a prevention of cognitive decline. The Mediterranean diet has also been linked to a lower likelihood of experiencing depression among older individuals, and to a reduced risk of cancer. If this wasn’t enough, this type of diet promotes healthy weight management due, in part, to the consumption of foods that are high in fiber and its positive impacts on the gut microbiota.
I would like to point out that the Mediterranean diet is not your typical weight-loss diet with a concrete set of rules to follow. This avoids many problems that come up with common diet plans such as feeling restricted, hungry or deprived, and eventually giving up. There are no food restrictions in the Mediterranean diet (there are also no “supersize” meals either). The general guidelines are to consume whole-wheat grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil, plenty of fresh and seasonal produce, lean meats, seafood, and wine in moderation.
Doesn’t sound too complicated, right?
The point I am trying to make is: what is commonly referred to as a ‘Mediterranean diet’ is more of a Mediterranean lifestyle. In my opinion, a Mediterranean type of diet does not stand alone. You can make the healthiest salad in the world, but inhaling it in 5 minutes in front of your computer at work while you answer phone calls defeats the whole purpose. We need to view health as a multidimensional concept, and try not to focus on food trends only.
When we talk about Mediterranean lifestyle, we are talking about a culture that eats meals at a table full of family and friends, doing more talking than eating, prioritizing social life and connecting with loved ones. Social eating not only helps you better recognize satiation and avoid overeating, but it also helps you feel connected and boosts your serotonin and endorphin levels, improving your overall mood.
It is a culture that values being able to walk to places, whether it is taking the stairs, walking downtown, to the store, or to a friend’s house; it’s about working activity into your daily life. It is a culture that tries to live simply. We do not need many possessions, and we try to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. It is a culture of people who laugh often, who love telling stories and filling their conversations with humor and sarcasm, and who take life only as seriously as it needs to be taken. It is a culture of slowing down, prioritizing emotional well-being and stress management.
We stand by the phrase ‘Work to live, don’t live to work’. Maybe that will never make us the most successful country in the world, or the richest one, but, at least for now, it has made us the healthiest.
To add one last thought, not all is positive. Nowadays, some doctors are ringing alarms about whether the Spanish population is moving away from the traditional Mediterranean diet and including more fast food and red meats in their diets, while eating less fresh produce. Life expectancy has gone up, but so have obesity rates in children.
Let’s hope this diet doesn’t fall into the category of “what we know we should be eating, but don’t really eat”, and we are able to look back at previous generations and maintain the gastronomic traditions that have given us so much more than we are able to realize.