Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Mediterranean diet does not mean eat less meat

Sun, sea and sustenance – the Mediterranean, or at least a Mediterranean diet, has again been held aloft as a beacon of best practice when it comes to diet and health.

This time, its health credentials have been pinpointed as playing a major role in staving off the risk of suffering diabetes, with some reports treating the Mediterranean diet of those living in Spain, Italy, France and Greece with more than a little reverence.

Of course, as the Ancient Greeks taught us themselves, where there are heroes, there are also villains. And cast as the villain of the piece this time, and not for the first time, is meat consumption.

However, the continuing inference that meat consumption in the Mediterranean diet is significantly lower than that of the UK, and therefore healthier by default, is not strictly accurate.

While the merits of Mediterranean foods, such as olive oil, fish, fruit and vegetables, are all well and good, the suggestion that people need to eat less meat to enjoy the benefits of these foods, is at best misleading. It also nods towards the assumption that the UK population at large generally overdoes it on the meat eating front, particularly compared to our European cousins.

The reality is that per capita consumption of meat in the UK is lower than most of the major western member states of the EU and, notably, France, Italy and Spain. For example, UK consumption is 84.2kg per head, below the EU average as a whole (84.8kg per head) and figures for Spain (97kg per head), Italy (90.7kg per head) and France (86.7kg per head). If nothing else, the statistics show clearly that low meat consumption is not part of a Mediterranean diet. And in a global context the UK fairs even better with significantly higher per capita consumption in the USA (120.2kg per head), Argentina (98.3kg per head) and Brazil (85.3kg per head).

Another reality is the selectively ignored positive role lean red meat can play in a balanced and healthy diet as highlighted by the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP). Indeed, as MAP suggests, British meat eaters could have the best of both worlds by cooking lean cuts of red meat with olive oil and serving with wholegrain bread and a large serving of Mediterranean vegetables.

Red meat consumption is an easy target and, the suggestion that a Mediterranean diet is healthier isn’t a new one. However, when discussing the issue, a certain amount of perspective has to be retained and the demonising of meat consumption does little to add to any constructive debate on the subject.