‘It’s eating what the sea provides’: Galicia’s Atlantic diet eclipses Mediterranean cousin

<span>Former sailors Sito Mendoza, left, and Ramón Álvarez now work in the conger eel business from a wharfside shed in Fisterra, Galicia.</span><span>Photograph: Sam Jones</span>
Former sailors Sito Mendoza, left, and Ramón Álvarez now work in the conger eel business from a wharfside shed in Fisterra, Galicia.Photograph: Sam Jones

Seagulls shriek, boats bob and the morning sun silvers the waters off the Coast of Death as two sailors take a break from winding up their conger eel lines to ponder the sudden interest in precisely what, and how, people here have eaten for centuries.

Like many in the small Galician fishing town of Fisterra – whose name is derived from the Latin for land’s end, because the lonely peninsula on which it sits is about as far west as you can go in mainland Spain – Sito Mendoza and Ramón Álvarez are a little puzzled by all the fuss over the Atlantic diet.

The traditional diet, which survives in this north-western region of Spain and across the border in northern Portugal, has been hailed as an exciting and sustainable alternative to its better-known and more tanned southern cousin, the Mediterranean diet.

Recent analysis of a clinical trial conducted almost a decade ago found that eating the Atlantic diet – which is rich in seafood, fruit and vegetables, and which also incorporates meat, dairy and potatoes – significantly reduced the incidence of metabolic syndrome, the cluster of health problems that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and conditions related to the heart and blood vessels.

Mendoza offers a simple gloss of the diet. “We eat everything but above all fish and octopus,” says the 74-year-old local. “It’s always been that way around here. What’s the secret? I can’t tell you. Maybe it’s the climate but we do eat very healthily. The potatoes and the vegetables and the beans and the meat are all from here.”

His friend Álvarez, with whom he once plied the Atlantic’s Sole Bank, chips in: “You need to keep busy; you need to keep moving!” Although both men retired in their late 50s, the conger lines they prepare in their wharfside shed, which can snag up to 700 eels on a good day, keep them occupied – as do Mendoza’s reminiscences of a long-ago fortnight in Newcastle: “Lovely girls. And those marvellous pints!”

The centrality of fish to local tables and the economy is evident at the afternoon fish auction in the harbour market. By 4.30pm on weekdays, dozens of iced boxes beckon to buyers, offering glistening specimens of thornback ray, octopus, white sea bream, cuttlefish, wrasse, conger eel, hake, bonito, red mullet, mackerel, sole and monkfish.

“It’s about eating what the sea provides and enjoying your day-to-day life and the peace and quiet we have around here,” says Manuel Domínguez, a 43-year-old fishmonger. “It was all about the Mediterranean diet before and now it’s all about fish – especially oily fish.”

María del Mar Calvo Malvar, a clinical analysis specialist at the University hospital of Santiago de Compostela, helped put together the 2014-15 clinical study and is one of the authors of the recent analysis that found the Atlantic diet reduced metabolic syndrome by a third in just six months. She says simplicity, variety, sustainability and conviviality go a long way to explaining the diet’s health benefits.

“This diet is characterised by a high consumption of fresh, seasonal and local foods – these are ‘zero-mile foods’ – such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, potatoes, fish and dairy products,” she says. “Fish and seafood are a basic part of our diet: in Atlantic gastronomy, we eat more fish and seafood than in the surrounding countries – three or four portions a week. The same goes for dairy products, which are mainly milk and cheese.”

She says the Atlantic culinary tradition is characterised by its “creativity, simplicity, and by the value it places on its ingredients; it’s about maintaining the essence of the ingredients”.

Although Calvo acknowledges the Atlantic diet has many similarities to the Mediterranean diet – not least the heavy use of olive oil, the ubiquity of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the fact that both are based on fresh, local and seasonal foods – she insists there are a few fundamental differences. She points to the Atlantic diet’s fondness for brassicas, such as cabbage and greens, which are high in glucosinolates – organic compounds that have been shown to help prevent certain kinds of cancers and other illnesses.


“The same goes for dairy products – a lot more dairy is eaten in the north than in the south,” says Calvo. “Finally, wine is more prevalent in the north and beer is more prevalent in the south. The culinary techniques are also different: there’s a lot of steaming and stewing in Atlantic gastronomy, whereas there’s more frying in Mediterranean gastronomy.”

Calvo and her colleagues are also keen to stress the social and familial elements of the diet. “It’s a way of eating but it’s also about sharing and enjoying food,” says Rosaura Leis, the president of the scientific committee of the Atlantic Diet Foundation at the University of Santiago de Compostela, a professor of paediatrics and the president of the Spanish nutrition foundation.

She does, however, warn that the diet’s inclusion of cheese and potatoes should not be seen as carte blanche to reach for the cheesy chips.

“What we have shown in our clinical studies is that the dietary habits of the Atlantic diet are associated with better metabolic health and lower levels of cholesterol, lower BMI and less metabolic syndrome,” she says. “That doesn’t mean the ingredients on their own are healthy – it means the pattern and combination of these foods has healthy effects. At the end of the day, it’s about following the advice we so often provide: a varied and diverse diet that takes into account quantities and physical activity and health.”

Brais Pichel, a young local chef whose Terra restaurant overlooking the beach in Fisterra won a Michelin star last year, says people in Galicia have always treated family meals, and the ingredients on which they are built, with respect and restraint.

“It’s about the product and finding something to go with it. But at the end of the day, a grilled fish only needs to be cooked well and seasoned with the best oil, vinegar and salt,” he says. “It may sound a bit strange and radical – and they may kill me for saying so – but I think Japanese cooking is a bit like Galician cooking. It’s about simplicity but it’s not easy.”

Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the director of the Food is Medicine Institute at the Friedman school at Tufts University, has welcomed the trial results from the other side of the Atlantic. “The trial is important, because ‘common sense’ around a healthy diet has in recent years devolved into raging social media battles over radical fad diets,” he says.

“This trial provides important confirmatory evidence on what we’ve learned to be true over the last 20 years: a healthy diet is rich in minimally processed fruits, veggies, nuts, seafood, and other fibre and phenolic rich foods, and low in highly processed grains, starches, sugar and salt.”

That said, he remains a little sceptical about some aspects of the diet, noting that brassicas are no more likely to improve health than other combinations of vegetables, or, especially, fruits. He adds: “One would be hard-pressed to believe that more potatoes would be a good thing. In long-term studies, potatoes are linked to higher risk of high blood pressure and weight gain.”

Mozaffarian also wonders whether this might all be a case of old olive oil in new bottles. “This Atlantic diet is more or less a Mediterranean diet with a slightly different fashion style and dialect. To folks in the region, those little differences are a point of cultural pride. For all the rest of us, these are two closely related cousins that we have trouble telling apart.”

But Mozaffarian agrees that the social aspects of the diet should not be overlooked. “Studies of the healthiest cultures, like the Blue Zones, have consistently shown that cultures that value family, friends and the integral role of food in nurturing these are healthier, happier and longer lived.”

Those thoughts – and many more – are echoed by Bienvenido Martinéz, a 55-year-old butcher from Fisterra who offers as succinct a summary of the diet as you will find.

“It’s a way of living and a way of doing things: the Atlantic diet is a diet that relies on good quality ingredients,” he says. “We don’t rush things here … When we sit down to eat, we sit down to eat. We don’t muck about.”

The Atlantic diet

The health benefits of the diet are reported to lie in its use of a variety of fresh, seasonal ingredients. These are the food consumption recommendations laid out in the Galicia Atlantic diet study, conducted between March 2014 and May 2015.


  • Bread, cereals, wholegrain cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes: 6-8 servings a day.

  • Olive oil: 3-4 servings a day.

  • Fruit: at least 3 servings a day.

  • Vegetables: at least 2 servings day.

  • Milk products: 3-4 servings a day.

Several times a week

  • Fish and seafood: 3-4 servings a week.

  • Lean meat: 3-4 servings a week.

  • Eggs: 3-4 servings a week.

  • Pulses: 2-3 servings a week.

  • Nuts (preferably chestnuts, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts): 4-6 servings a week.


  • Fatty meat, cured sausage, margarine, butter: a few times a month.

  • Sweets, pastries, cakes, candies, ice-cream etc: a few times a month.

  • Sugary drinks: a few times a month.

Water: 6-8 servings a day.

For most items, a standard portion was the recording unit (eg a 250ml glass of milk, a carton of yoghurt, a piece of fruit, a slice of bread). A portion of boiled vegetables was regarded as 200g, a portion of lettuce as 100g, a portion of sugary soda drink as a 330ml can.

(Source: A randomised, family-focused dietary intervention to evaluate the Atlantic diet: the Galiat study protocol)