EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF NUTRITION AND FOOD SCIENCE
“The best diet is a varied and balanced one”
Abel Mariné is one of the leading food experts in Catalonia. In this interview he defends the Mediterranean diet and dispels some myths about what is considered artificial or natural. The key, he says, is balance and moderation, and enjoying meals with time and in company
“It would be nice if we could eat less meat, but without demonising meat eating” “EATING PLENTY OF VEGETABLES ALONG WITH MEAT IN MODERATION IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO” “The name Mediterranean diet was coined by US researcher, Ancel Keys, in the 1960s” “A LOT OF FOOD INFORMATION CIRCULATING ON THE INTERNET IS INCORRECT”
We have just experienced a new controversy regarding macro-farms and the quantity and quality of the meat we eat. Is eating meat abusive and harmful?
The relationship between eating meat and cancer has only been proven in cases of really high levels of consumption and as part of an unbalanced diet, with very few vegetables, other greens and fruits. There’s a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (AIRC) carried out in 2015 that specifically states that it is not a matter of abstaining from eating meat, but of eating less of it. The key to a good diet is for it to be varied, and predominantly plant-based. Almost everyone agrees on that.
What are the right quantities?
An average of up to 70 grammes a day of meat and meat products, and this also includes dried sausages and processed meats. In very round numbers, it would be a maximum of 500 grammes of meat per week. White and unprocessed meats should prevail, with fewer red meats and sausages. A daily dried sausage sandwich is too much, but that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of it entirely either. In Catalonia as a whole, meat consumption is much higher than this average, probably around 120 or 130 grammes a day. It would be nice if we ate less meat, but without demonising meat eating.
There are more and more vegans and more alternative products to meat.
These are often products with a lot of added technology and not always very cheap. An extensive livestock product can be more natural than one of these substitutes, which can contain many additives, although I’m not necessarily against additives. Now many people say they’re vegan, even though there have always been vegetarians all along. We’ve adopted the English term “vegan”, which seems to be more modern, but there have always been people here that never ate meat.
Isn’t it a new fashion?
Not at all. In classical terminology there are strict vegetarians who do not eat any products of animal origin, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians who eat milk and dairy products and eggs. In today’s vegetarianism I would distinguish two sides. On the one hand, those who follow a tradition that is very old and that is sometimes linked to religion and beliefs. One of the first known vegetarians was Pythagoras, who apparently did not do it so much for health but to publicly protest the abuses at big banquets. We must always think that the great meals of the rich, the great pleasure of eating, are associated with eating too much meat, never too much fruit or vegetables. In any case, the food is free and everyone can do whatever they want. Recently, there is another aspect of vegetarianism that, albeit I say it with all due prudence, looks more like a fad. A new term has even been invented: flexitarian, to indicate that you are a vegetarian but that you eat meat from time to time. This doesn’t need a new weird name. Eating plenty of vegetables along with meat in moderation is the right thing to do! That being said, there is an interesting historic, or rather prehistoric, point of view. When our ancestors began eating meat, they laid the groundwork for the development of the human brain.
So, are we human because of eating meat?
One of Atapuerca’s researchers, Juan Luis Arsuaga, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, explains in his book ’Los aborigenes’ that at the time humans began eating meat, when they took advantage of the meat scavenged from dead animals, it simplified digestion and made it possible to devote more energy and physiological activity to developing the brain. It should be noted that meat has a high nutritional value and it can be eaten raw, while cereals must be processed. Our ancestors, before the Neolithic revolution in agriculture, ate the edible plants they found. They ate a lot of fibre, which is very good and necessary, but which also requires digestive effort. Eating meat helped to reduce this effort and so becoming carnivores contributed to our hominisation. In addition, a strict vegetarian diet may be deficient in some nutrients.
What nutrients specifically?
Iron, which comes mainly from meat, and calcium, which comes mainly from milk and its derivatives. And especially vitamin B12. Strict vegetarians should take supplements of this vitamin, and this is especially critical in young children and pregnant and lactating women. Therefore, a strict vegetarian diet is a diet that needs a lot of care, although with this type of supplementation it is perfectly feasible. It is a personal choice. Yet if you eat everything in moderation, you never have to worry about anything.
Between the rise of vegans on the one hand and fast food on the other, is the Mediterranean diet being lost?
We must continue to insist. Indeed, recent research from the University of Barcelona by Professor Cristina Andrés from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences associates lower mortality among the elderly following the Mediterranean diet. This diet, in fact, is nothing new. This is what we followed in the 1940s without knowing it: eating a variety of local products in moderation. The geography around the Mediterranean does not allow for large areas of crop growing or large areas for livestock. Production has always been limited and based mainly on the orchard: fruits, vegetables, greens and fat in the form of olive oil. The name Mediterranean diet was coined by an American researcher, Ancel Keys, who in the 1960s found that in southern Italy, according to his criteria, people ate a lot of fat but that there was not a lot of cardiovascular disease. He discovered that the reason was the consumption of olive oil, which is the healthiest fat of all, and was the one that was always consumed here until seed oils began to reach us. It has also been shown that the Mediterranean diet contains mainly pork fat and contrary to what many people might think pork fat is not so bad. If we add a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruit, which the Anglo-Saxon diet does not include, we have a very healthy diet. And we also tended to eat in moderation.
People used to eat less?
Those of us who are old enough to remember rationing remember that it was healthy. There was little meat, lots of pulses and vegetables, fresh food and nuts, and while sugar was highly valued, we didn’t have much. There is some data that is spectacular and that I always comment on. In Britain, during World War II, there was scientifically planned rationing, and in those five years the English had excellent cardiovascular health like they had not had before and did not have after. Once they had won the war they went back to eating bacon and eggs for breakfast every day and cardiovascular problems increased again.
Does the Mediterranean diet also include wine with meals?
Yes, but the current trends tell us we should not recommend any type of alcohol. Even the European Union is considering labelling wine bottles with a warning saying there is a risk of cancer. But it has been consumed for centuries and it has been shown to have health benefits when consumption is limited. What should be clear is that alcohol is a toxic substance if abused, which can lead to addiction, and which people with health problems should not drink. We should not recommend or promote it. Personally, however, a very moderate amount in the cultural and dietary framework of the Mediterranean diet makes it a bit difficult for me to say it is harmful, although there is research that indicates that there is no safe dose, especially in relation to breast cancer. But on the other hand, many researchers still believe that moderate wine consumption has positive cardiovascular effects. In any case, what we should never get tired of recommending are fruits and vegetables, and also cereal derivatives (bread, pasta, rice...).
Are we eating increasingly worse?
Worryingly, we’ve lost the habit of eating at the table. There are those who blame women for no longer cooking, but we all have to take responsibility for the kitchen. However, to know exactly we would need a nutritionist in each family. Food and health studies based on interviews may indicate trends, but they do not show the whole and absolute truth, because one thing is what people eat and another is what they say they eat. And in any case, what we need to be clear about is that a lot of food information circulating on the internet is incorrect. A lot of “influencers” need to be careful. The consumer needs to know if the information they receive comes from a research centre, a scientific journal, their own experience, or the promotion of a product. For example, there is this fashion for superfoods. Well, it turns out that tomatoes are also a superfood but since they’re not uncommon we don’t consider them to be a superfood.
What do you think about food supplements? Are they just another fad?
They perform a function when there really is a deficiency, but the first step should always be to modify the diet. One of the most common deficiencies we have in our society is that of vitamin D, especially in menopausal women, and this deficiency can be related to health problems. To avoid this, the best thing we can do is to eat more blue fish, eggs and animal fat, and sunbathe. In the case of a deficiency, the best thing to do is to select and prepare a suitable diet, not to go straight to a supplement, as the easy option.
In order to make everything easier, will there ever be a pill to save us from cooking?
The possibility of eating synthetically already exists. The fact is, if we take into account our needs for carbohydrates, fats and proteins, we would need about 500 grammes a day of human feed, let’s call it. That could very well be a thousand pills a day, and it makes no sense. In fact, NASA has decided to give its astronauts freeze-dried dishes rather than food pills, because it has been shown that eating food as a meal leads to a better physical and mental condition in order to carry out work tasks.
Small sporadic pleasures
Abel Mariné is Professor Emeritus of Nutrition and Food Science at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences of the University of Barcelona. He has been a professor at the University of Salamanca, dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Salamanca and of the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Barcelona. A regular contributor to various media outlets, he is a great science communicator and has published several books. The last one, Dietas: Una na immersión rápida (Tibidabo Ediciones), explains in a rigorous and clear way what criteria we should follow to choose what we eat, with all the necessary nuances for a healthy lifestyle.
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