World diet’s – Spain: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 80.05 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 47.8 male; 55.8 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 15.8 male; 15.6 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 118.6 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
Spain lies at the crossroads of many different cultures. In ancient times, it was populated by Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and North Africans. Today, Spain’s diverse culinary traditions reflect the country’s long multicultural history: the Spanish have been practicing the combine-and-conquer technique for centuries now!
Despite all the rich, indulgent foods the Spanish eat (think manchego cheese and cured pork), they are a remarkably slim people: the Spanishobesity rate hovers around 15 percent. They are also among the longest-lived people on earth.
WHAT THEY EAT
Although the Spanish never skimp on high-fat foods or wine, their diet revolves around healthy basics native to the area: citrus fruits, vegetables, legumes, garlic, and almonds. And let’s not forget the most quin-tessentially Spanish food of all: olive oil, the centerpiece of Spain’s traditional high-fiber, low-fat Mediterranean diet. Spain is the number one producer of olive oil in the world, responsible for more than a third of the world’s supply.
Spanish food tends to be extremely simple—improvisational in nature and built around whatever happens to be growing nearby. Spanish cooking is the product of fresh local ingredients and uncomplicated recipes. The Spanish also benefit from a relatively laid-back lifestyle and an enviably healthy attitude toward food. Any first-time visitor to Spain will notice how the locals linger for hours in tapas bars or spend an entire afternoon picking over Sunday lunch.
WHAT’S IN IT
Garlic: This tiny but pungent allium is an all-purpose ingredient in Spanish cooking—the country’s number two ingredient after olive oil. One of the most popular Spanish sauces, aïoli, is a combination of these two ubiquitous ingredients—a blend of crushed garlic and olive oil. The Spanish incorporate garlic into the widest range of recipes imaginable: garlic soup, garlic shrimp, garlic bread, garlic chicken—there’s no end of delicious recipes featuring this ingredient. You really can’t go wrong with garlic: it has an antibacterial property that prevents infections and destroys health-harmful blood clots, and it can lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Saffron: Saffron is the single most expensive spice in the world, but a little goes a long way. The Spanish love saffron, which gives their national dish, paella, its characteristic bright yellow color. Saffron, which is sold in threads, adds a delicate flavor to foods. It’s also been shown to help fight tumors and reverse the effects of brain damage from drinking alcohol.
Beverage of Choice: Red Wine
Like the French and Italians, the Spanish typically enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner. In Spain, wine is primarily drunk as an accompaniment to a meal—an extension of the joy the Spanish take in dining together.
Almonds: Almonds, which grow all over the Andalusia region of southern Spain, pop up in all sorts of Spanish dishes. Many typical Spanish sweets—including macaroons, marzipan, and nougat—are almond based. In general, I don’t recommend nuts as a source of protein because they have a fairly high fat content, deriving more than three-fourths of their calories from fat. Almonds, however, with the highest protein content of any nut, are packed with nutrients—manganese, magnesium, vitamin E, and folic acid, among others—and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease. Almonds also contain vitamin B17, or laetrile, which has been shown to fight cancer. As a garnish, almonds can be a healthy alternative to butter, but it’s important to remember that they’re roughly 80 percent fat.
Citrus Fruits: Beautiful citrus fruits—oranges, blood oranges, and clementines—flourish in southern Spain. The Spanish regularly cook with citrus fruits; they garnish lobster with oranges and toss clementines on top of salads. For dessert, they might serve blood oranges soaked in red wine. Another popular fruit native to Spain is the pomegranate, a mainstay of the Spanish diet for its antioxidant properties.
Beans and Legumes: No Spanish pantry is complete without a wide selection of dried beans, which are inexpensive and provide a fat-free, nutrient-dense source of vegetable protein. Beans come in dozens of varieties, and the Spanish never get bored with them.
Garbanzos (the Spanish name for chickpeas) are popular all over the Mediterranean region, from the Middle East to Italy. They’re a great source of fiber that can help decrease cholesterol. Garbanzos also can prevent blood sugar levels from rising too fast after a meal, stalling the release of insulin and stabilizing metabolic processes.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Olive
Like other cultures in the Mediterranean region, the Spanish use olive oil on absolutely everything and at every stage of a meal. They use it for cooking, seasoning, and even dipping. So they should be bursting out of their pants, right? Not so.
Olive oil, the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, is actually one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Research has shown that people who regularly consume olive oil have a lower risk of heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
That’s because olive oil—which the Spanish call “liquid gold”—is high in monounsaturated fat, which raises your “good” (HDL) cholesterol while lowering your artery-clogging “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Olive oil also contains anti-inflammatory antioxidants that can protect your arteries, which is one big reason the Spanish have such a low incidence of heart disease. And it’s a source of polyphenols, flavonoids, and vitamin E.
Lima beans and fava beans (Asturian fabes) also make frequent appearances on the Spanish table. Lentil stew is a standard dish in Spain, and restaurant meals often start with a small plate of filling lentejas.
Seafood: Since so much of the Iberian Peninsula touches the water, it’s only logical that seafood features prominently in the Spanish diet. In Spain’s world-famous fish markets, you can buy all sorts of fish. Trout, shrimp, crabs, squid, mussels, and lobsters are often cooked in lemon juice and a little olive oil, then served in a simple tomato- or garlic-based sauce.
Ham: Wild Iberian pigs, which eat a diet of acorns, produce what many consider to be the finest ham in the world: jamón ibérico, though seldom a main course, spices up a great variety of foods. Chorizo—salted, cured pork—adds a kick to many dishes. Although both are great additions to soups and main dishes, be sure to use them sparingly, as they are very high in saturated fat.
Seviche: Cooking Without Heat
Seviche is one of my all-time favorite Latin American dishes, and you don’t even need a stove to prepare it (unless you’re making shellfish seviche, which is usually cooked). Seviche refers to any fish marinated in a mixture of citrus juices, usually lemon and lime, though occasionally orange and grapefruit as well. The citric acid has a pickling effect on the fish, effectively cooking it without heat. Although seviche originated in Peru, it has become a mainstay of diets all over Latin America and Spain. Ecuadorans eat seviche with tomato sauce, Costa Ricans with minced onions and cilantro, Chileans with garlic and red peppers, and Peruvians with corn. However it is served, seviche is hands down one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Stewing: Every region in Spain has its own type of stew, and the Spanish language has at least half a dozen words for this dish. Hearty, one-dish meals of vegetables and meat are typical of Spain’s cuisine.
Sautéing: Lightly sautéing shrimp and other fish in olive oil is a common cooking technique in Spain.
Roasting: Roasting is a popular way to prepare meat in Spanish cuisine.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They keep their meals simple—and local.
Simplicity is the cornerstone of the best Spanish cuisine. Spain has a big rural population and strong agricultural traditions, and the Spanish still favor foods grown in their own regions—or even their own backyards. People who live in coastal areas such as Galicia eat a lot of seafood. Inhabitants of mountainous regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country seldom go a day without eating the mushrooms that grow wild in the Pyrenees. In the sun-drenched south, tomatoes are part of almost every meal. Gazpacho was invented in Andalusia, the southernmost part of Spain that almost touches Africa.
The Snack That’s a Meal: Tapas
Nothing typifies the Spanish fondness for leisurely nibbling like tapas, Spain’s answer to Greece’s mezes, Italy’s antipasti, and South Korea’s banchan.
The word tapa means “lid,” a reference to the saucer that waiters would place over wineglasses to ward off the flies in the days before air-conditioning. Over time, they began adding almonds, anchovies, or olives—whatever food was handy at the moment—to these little saucers, and the tradition of tapas was born.
To this day, tapas are a bar food. The Spanish often enjoy them standing up, while leaning against the counter chatting with friends. They might order one dish or ten, depending on how hungry they are or how much time they have on their hands. Eating tapas is a social affair, an excuse to keep the conversation going—the very opposite of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Examples of classic tapas include tortilla española (an egg omelet often made with leftover fried potatoes); patatas bravas (potato chunks fried in olive oil); cured ham and native manchego cheese; chorizo al vino (Spanish sausage cooked in wine); and gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil).
Although tapas have gotten more elaborate in recent years, the basic principle is unchanged: they are small dishes to be consumed slowly, in the company of friends. Other than that, there are no rules about how to mix and match various tapas. As in so much Spanish food, it’s all about personal taste and experimentation.
They make pleasure a priority.
Yes, I know, this advice sounds obvious to the point of idiocy, but it does bear repeating, especially in countries such as Spain that have taken the “live to eat” ethos to new heights.
The Spanish take great pride in their native culinary traditions, and they love, love, love to eat. In Spain, dinner isn’t just about the food on your plate. It’s a supremely social affair, an excuse to kick back for hours and hours with your friends and family. It’s no coincidence that the Spanish national dish, paella, is traditionally eaten straight from the pan, with friends and family gathered around one big dish. The first time I ate paella, in Barcelona, I couldn’t believe that a single-dish meal could explode with so many different colors and flavors. I was so full afterward that dessert was not even an option.
They improvise freely.
Anything goes—that’s the key lesson of tapas and Spanish cooking in general. If you’re missing an “essential” ingredient, there’s no reason to scrap the whole recipe. Play around with whatever you find in your pantry or fridge. Use your imagination to make it work. Tapas, gazpacho, paella—so many Spanish foods are mere templates that can be embellished in a thousand different ways.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Frequent relaxation plays a big role in the healthy Spanish lifestyle. After lunch on weekdays, the Spanish typically lie down for a siesta lasting an hour or even longer. Stores close, businesses put a sign in the front window, and the whole nation shuts down for the hottest hours of the afternoon. Good luck buying aspirin at 2:00 P.M. on a Tuesday!
But did you know that napping—or at least getting eight hours of shut-eye every night—could have major health benefits? Napping regularly can lower your blood pressure and stress levels while increasing on-the-job productivity. Adequate sleep is a crucial part of regulating your metabolism, which is essential for keeping your weight low. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found a correlation between fewer hours of sleep and rising childhood obesity rates.1 And these days, we’re sleeping less than ever. Eighty years ago, adults averaged 8.77 hours of sleep a night. Today, that average has fallen to 6.85 hours.
I’m not saying that a midday snooze is realistic for most nine-to-fivers—of course not! Even in Spain, the realities of modern life have eroded the country’s proud tradition of napping. Historically, Spanish government employees worked from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 or 8:00 P.M., a timetable that factored in an extremely long lunch break. But now the Spanish workday is much more similar to ours, with only one hour off for lunch.
Perhaps an even more important element of Spanish people’s overall health is their habit of walking everywhere. Spanish cities are much more compact than ours, designed and constructed long before the invention of the interstate highway and the minivan, so it’s easy to get everything you need for day-to-day life within a few blocks of your home. As a result, especially in smaller cities, the Spanish take care of all their daily business on foot. They walk to work, to church, to the doctor, to the tailor. Like the French, they make trips on foot to the grocery store just about every day of the week, usually buying only what they need for the next meal.
In the United States, urbanites who occasionally trade their car keys for a pair of comfortable sneakers also tend to weigh less. A Rutgers University study of 200,000 Americans found that city dwellers weighed on average six pounds less than their suburban counterparts, mostly because they frequently went places on foot.2
In Spain, walking is part of the culture. Years ago, the Spanish even formalized a ritual known as the paseo, a Sunday evening stroll that the whole family goes on together. What better way to digest a gigantic Sunday lunch than with a leisurely stroll through town, spent chatting with your family and friends?
Breakfast: Breakfast in Spain is a fairly simple affair, consisting of some bread product—toast, a sweet roll, or torrijas (Spanish bread pudding)—with coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Lunch: The Spanish usually eat lunch between 1:30 and 4:00 P.M. As in France, this is typically the largest meal of the day. It might include a light salad or soup (maybe the vegetable-packed gazpacho), lentils with chorizo or another small side dish; then fish, meat, or poultry for the main course.
Dinner: Dinner usually begins around 9:00 P.M. The last meal of the day tends to be light—a salad and some tapas. On special occasions, the familymight gather for paella, a wonderful one-dish meal that’s a mixture of saffron rice, vegetables, and your choice of protein.
• Focus on local foods and flavors, building your diet around foods cultivated in your area.
• Don’t forget that sometimes the simplest food is also the tastiest.
• Learn to improvise in the kitchen and at the table. Cooking, like eating, should be a creative act, not a form of punishment.
• Indulge—but in moderation.
• Take it easy. Get plenty of rest and carve out time in your day to run errands on foot.
1. J-P Chaput et al., “Relationship Between Short Sleeping Hours and Childhood Overweight/Obesity: Results from the ‘Québec en Forme’ Project,” International Journal of Obesity 30 (March 14, 2006): 1080–85.
2. “Suburban Sprawl Adds Health Concern,” The New York Times, August 31, 2003.