Also as former director of the National Programme for a Healthy Diet, Pedro Graça is committed to helping improve nutrition and health in Portugal, encouraging people to eat better and promoting access to certain types of food. In this interview, the researcher tells us that the great strength of the Mediterranean diet is its ability to create a culture of sharing meals around the table and speaks of its potential for, when adopted consistently over a long period, protecting us against infectious diseases such as Covid-19.
INTERVIEW WITH PEDRO GRAÇA
DEAN OF THE FACULTY OF NUTRITION AND FOOD SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF PORTO
What scientific evidence do we have that the mediterranean diet makes us more resistant to Covid-19?
The Mediterranean diet is recognised as protecting our health, in particular as guarding against a series of chronic diseases already familiar to us: obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. What we have been learning, and this is nothing new, is that it can also play a role in protecting us against infectious diseases, such as Covid-19, because of the large quantity of anti-inflammatory substances found in it. This means that, although the Mediterranean diet is not a cure, it can certainly help in the present pandemic situation, when we are concerned about infectious diseases.
How can we avoid people moving away from this type of diet?
Whilst in the past it was the older generation who stuck most closely to the Mediterranean diet, recent data show that it is now gaining ground with younger people. That’s very curious. But there are still a lot of obstacles. Working patterns, for instance… Long hours of working outside the home, whereas the Mediterranean diet is largely based on cooking and preparing meals and sitting down at the table. The way we work today militates against this for a lot of people. So I think we have to take a closer look at how to make it possible for younger people who want to adopt the Mediterranean diet to be able to do this in their daily lives. I would say that this is the great challenge for the future, for us to preserve this style of eating which protects our health, and also the environment.
The Intangible Heritage status is also about a country’s culture around the meal table.
How important is the question of conviviality in an age when technology tends to keep us away from family meals around the table?
The Mediterranean diet is based on being together around the table. One of our ideas is that maintaining that conviviality also helps to promote togetherness, as well as preserving our culture, and our identity. That’s why the Mediterranean diet is also classified as Intangible Heritage, meaning heritage that’s not bricks and mortar, but the heritage of our culture around the meal table. The idea of having a way of eating that is classed as Intangible World Heritage is something with enormous potential. And in my view that’s the great strength of the Mediterranean diet.
What’s your favourite dish in the mediterranean diet?
I would say that my favourite dish, and one that is a symbol of the Mediterranean diet, is soup. It might seem a simple thing, but the great advantage of soup is its diversity. Unlike cozido , for example – when I eat cozido it’s almost always the same thing – the Portuguese manage to make thousands of varieties of soup. This biodiversity, this wealth of ingredients, and sitting down at the table in the knowledge that every day we’re going to have a different soup, is something extraordinary in the diet of the Portuguese people. We should keep it going in order to stay healthy, and at the same time to preserve our culture.