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'We could all eat a Mediterranean diet that is both fast and very healthy'

Ricardo Miguelañez. Agricultural Engineer @rmiguelanez interviews Marta Garaulet Aza, a nutritionist with a PhD in Pharmacology as well as a Master's Degree in Public Health from Harvard University. She is currently Chair of Physiology and Physiological Principles of Nutrition at the University of Murcia and was part of its Nutrition Research Group.

R.M.- Do Spaniards eat well?

M.G.-It's all relative. Compared with Americans, we eat very healthy. Nevertheless, there have been times when we've eaten better. What are we doing wrong? It make sense that we don't have the same Mediterranean diet as in the 1970s, because everything has changed, but we could have a more modern Mediterranean diet with what's currently available: vegetables that have been washed and bagged, gazpacho in tetrabrik, legumes in a jar... We could all eat a Mediterranean diet that's both quick and very healthy. In short, we eat well, but we could eat better.

R.M.- Do you believe the problem is the lack of awareness or financial reasons?

M.G.-The problem is that we've never had so much variety and so little time to cook. We are overloaded with work and we need to eat things that are fast to prepare. In fact, we have organized cooking workshops, and one of the requirements is that all of the recipes take less than 15 minutes to prepare, use ingredients from the Mediterranean diet, be healthy, and cost, at most, 2 euros per person. You can eat the same Mediterranean diet as always but using semi-cooked legumes, washed tomatoes... It's a question of lack of time and organization.

R.M.- There's currently a very noticeable trend of notably promoting some foods and demonizing others. How do you view this?

M.G.-My presentation as an honorary member of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Food Science dealt with the seven challenges nutritionists in Spain and the modern world face, and one of them is to not demonize foods. We have to understand that in a diet, as a whole, what's important is portion size, that it be varied, and that it make sense. All foods, in the right amount, are good foods.

The fact that bread and milk have come under fire lately is an enormous mistake. With respect to milk, it's important to note that, at present, 70% of Spaniards don't get enough calcium, which is the most important mineral of all (700-1000 mg/day). Bread has been associated with weight gain and refined flour and starches are being removed. Although, from a nutritional standpoint, it's better to include wheat bread and fiber in our diet, more than half of the calories we need should come from carbohydrates. In Italy, most carbohydrates come from pasta, in Asia they come from rice, and in Spain they have always come from wheat and bread.

From the 1970s until now, the two major changes in our Mediterranean diet have been the decline in bread consumption by one-third and the slide in legume consumption, as they too have been demonized as being products which lead to weight gain. And yet, having reduced our intake of these products by a third, obesity has tripled.

R.M.- What does bread contribute to a balanced diet?

M.G.-Bread provides the complex carbohydrates we need. Of all of the calories we consume, half must come from carbohydrates. That's impossible if our diet lacks bread, rice, pasta and legumes.

R.M.- Would eating 100 grams of bread a day be a good amount?

M.G.-Yes, that could be good, but it all depends on the amount of calories a person gets from other foods that are high in carbohydrates. Essentially, if one day you eat pasta as a main course, you shouldn't have bread with it; save the bread for breakfast or dinner. However, when we eat meat or fish, which are rich in proteins, or vegetables, then we should eat bread. What's important is the big picture.

R.M.-One of the most common uses for bread in Spain is as a sub sandwich, with cold cuts, cheese, etc. What do you think about that combination?

M.G.-I view it as very positive. A great breakfast for a child mid-morning is a good sandwich. I suggest using wheat bread or brown breads with more fiber and unrefined flour. It's important to eat three times as much bread as cold cuts. The bread should be large, with just a few slices of chorizo or salchichón or, even better, with tuna, anchovies, cheese, Serrano ham... It's important to eat fewer sandwiches with heavier fats, such as pâtés and sobrasadas.

R.M.- Do you have any suggestions for increasing bread consumption in a healthy way?

M.G.-Yes. I believe that Spanish bakers should prepare top-quality breads. They should encourage consumption of wheat bread and bread with fiber by Spaniards. During the war and the post-war period, brown breads were viewed as foods for poor people; they were rejected. However, in Germany there are more than 200 types of bread and 80% are wheat, which have a lower glycemic index.

R.M.- In addition to research, you work with the Garaulet Nutrition Centers. What is your work philosophy with regard to this topic and what is the secret to your success?

M.G.-At the Garaulet Center, we try to show people how to eat based on our culture, on the Mediterranean diet, as we've always eaten in Spain. We try to recover it and re-incorporate it into households in a way that is quick, easy and inexpensive. Garaulet's success comes from convincing people that they can prepare a balanced, Mediterranean diet in less than 15 minutes.

We encourage people to eat a healthy breakfast that includes three food groups, and that the main course of the day be legumes three times a week, pasta one day, rice one day, and meat or fish with vegetables two days out of the week. For dinner we suggest avoiding cold cuts and eating soup, eggs or fish, and sitting down to eat as a family, with utensils.

For us, a person learns to eat and designs his own diet and lifestyle so that it is compatible with his or her social life, family and preferences, and that becomes a perfect, balanced diet.

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