Covid-19 and the Mediterranean Diet: How it can help the fight back to health – and why Spain and Italy’s death tolls are so high
Globally, scientists are working around the clock to come up with a vaccine to protect against infection with Covid-19, but it could be we already have some of the tools we need to fight the
Globally, scientists are working around the clock to come up with a vaccine to protect against infection with Covid-19, but it could be we already have some of the tools we need to fight the virus. It seems the Mediterranean Diet can help in the push to combat the new virus on the block. If that’s the case then, why are Italy and Spain at the top of the list of deaths from COVID-19 in Europe? It’s complicated, but maybe we can shed some light on it.
While there are no specific foods or food groups that can prevent or treat Covid-19, diet and lifestyle can help support the immune system and put your body in the best possible shape for coping with Covid-19. What you may not realise is that the microbes in your gut – collectively known as the microbiome – also play an important part in supporting the immune system.
A predominantly plant-based eating plan like the Mediterranean Diet helps keep the microbiome healthy and diverse. This in its turn helps you to stay fit and healthy, and also reduce internal inflammation. If you should contract Covid-19, you’ll be fighting it from a position of advantage.
The Mediterranean Diet has long been recognised as one of the healthiest eating plans in the world, since scientists first identified its contribution to longevity in Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy, France and Spain back in the 1960s. It’s not just the food, it’s the whole lifestyle package of taking time to savour food rather than rush it, getting more exercise, and the laid-back attitude of people from these countries that keeps stress to a minimum.
Of course, the main thing about the Mediterranean Diet is its reliance on fresh food and vegetables, healthy oils and pulses. Processed food hardly features at all. The problem is, over the last few years, there’s been a shift in eating habits and lifestyle. As younger Spaniards have moved away from home to the cities looking for work, they’ve embraced the fast food and take away lifestyle, rather than cooking meals from scratch.
They’re clearly taking those choices into the next generation. According to the World Health Organisation, (WHO) 40 per cent of Spanish children are overweight, while 17 per cent of their parents are classed as obese – with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30. What’s really worrying is that 82 per cent of these people don’t even consider themselves to be obese. It’s all very different to 50 years ago, when Spaniards ate almost twice as much fruit and vegetables as they do these days, and they couldn’t afford to eat much red meat.
These facts and figures help to explain why Spain and Italy’s Covid-19 death rates are the highest in mainland Europe, with 28,773 in Spain, and 32,785 in Italy. Encouragingly, 150,000 people in Spain have made a full recovery, which means more than five times as many people have recovered from Covid-19 than have succumbed to it. That’s not something media reports tend to dwell on, but it’s what people need to hear, to give them hope of an end to the situation.
One good thing about the stringent lock-down conditions is that people have turned to cooking again to relieve the tedium of being forced to stay at home. Additionally, many of Spain’s chefs have been producing videos showing how to cook simple dishes at home. That keeps them engaged with their clients until they are able to work again and also helps to spread the word about the merits of Mediterranean style food.
Another advantage of the Mediterranean way of eating is that frozen and canned fruit and vegetables can be used as well as fresh, so if you can’t get out for shopping, you can feed yourself out of the freezer and the store cupboard. Many Spanish dishes are easy to prepare, as there are not many ingredients, and this estofado de garbanzos y patatas (chick pea and potato stew) is ideal for a ‘store cupboard dinner,’ as you can substitute tinned tomatoes for fresh if necessary.
In summary, then, following the Mediterranean Diet can help support your immune system, help you lose weight, and it’s full of antioxidants – especially if you concentrate on brightly coloured fruit and vegetables. Should you contract Covid-19, you will be well prepared to fight it if your general health is good to start with.
While the trend away from this style of eating may account for some of the fatalities in Italy and Spain, there does seem to be a trend back towards home cooking thanks to the lock-down. And with so many people furloughed or out of work right now, there isn’t going to be much available disposable income for some time to come, so maybe the trend will turn around and Spaniards will return to basics and begin to eat more healthily again. If Covid-19 brings Spain and Italy back to the Mediterranean Diet, it will be something positive to emerge from this challenging situation, and that’s a bonus for us all.