Locally born medic warns about what we eat

Dr Miguel Ángel Martínez, at a conference in the USA.
Dr Miguel Ángel Martínez, at a conference in the USA. / Fernando Alonso Films
  • Considered the world's greatest authority on the Mediterranean diet, Dr Miguel Ángel Martínez's research has been used in White House initiatives

Miguel Ángel Martínez was born in Malaga in 1957. When he went to Harvard in 1998 to ask for advice on how to prepare a report on a piece of medical research, he could never have imagined what would happen later. Now, he not only gives classes as associate professor at the university where Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy and Mark Zuckerberg studied, but his research into the Mediterranean diet has been studied in the Oval Office in the White House and was also used in government initiatives while Barack Obama was president.

Dr Martínez returned recently to give a talk at the Culinary Institute of America with Walter Willett, the grand guru of nutrition in the USA who was the principal government adviser on such matters. There to hear them talk about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet were future American chefs, as well as those who run the kitchens of major hotel complexes and restaurants.

"A young man aged about 30 told me he had a restaurant in La Rioja, but he rarely went there because he didn't have enough time to travel to Spain: he has more than 250 establishments in the US and over 100 in Canada. And he was there to listen to us," laughs Dr Martínez, who left the Pedregalejo district of Malaga when he was 17 to study Medicine in Granada. Half of his results were extremely good; the rest were outstanding.

First, he specialised in cardiology, but then realised that what really interested him was cardiovascular prevention. He registered for further training, and started to practise his profession in Granada. In 1996 the vice-chancellor of Navarra University travelled there to see him, with a view to setting up an Epidemiology and Public Health Unit. He accepted.

"At that time there was only me; I was completely on my own," he says, speaking in his office in Pamplona. Nowadays he still runs the department he set up, but it is staffed by 30 professionals from the University, which is considered one of the finest in Europe in terms of quality education, according to the 'Times Higher Education' ranking.

He combines his work in Spain - he teaches in English and Spanish - with three or four stays at Harvard every year, as well as a large number of weekly videoconferences.

Sceptical at first

He is now known as the main expert on the Mediterranean diet, but says at the start of his career he was "slightly sceptical" about its benefits. "I used to think there must be a lot of exaggeration about it, that we defended it because it was ours, but then I started to find that the research was giving really impressive results," he says.

His CV covers a great many pages, featuring different macro-research projects, one with more than 23,000 volunteers and 100 million pieces of data compiled in over a decade, and he has published more than 700 scientific articles. He was a pioneer in associating diet with the risk of depression and about a month ago he and his research group published a study in the British Medical Journal which concluded that a high consumption of highly processed foods bears a greater risk of mortality.

Dr Martínez has impressive qualifications, and he has no doubt about stating that part of the food industry today is worse than the tobacco industry 50 years ago.

"There are companies who buy scientists, make them tell lies because they pay them to do it, and that is causing a great deal of damage," he says. The private sector has financed part of his research on two occasions, and he says that is never going to happen again, even though the conclusions of his studies were not affected.

"I don't want to go to any conference or anywhere else hand in hand with the food industry," he insists, and for that reason he has no hesitation in vetoing certain products.

"Everybody says we should eat more pulses, more fruit, more vegetables, but when we need to be told what not to eat, they use obscure language and we don't really know what they are talking about: whether its trans fats, saturated fats etc," he explains.

His statements have been very clear for years: white bread is one of the biggest problems we have in Spain, there is no such thing as a good biscuit in a supermarket, sugar-free drinks have become an expensive way of drinking tap water, processed meats (sausages and burgers) should be avoided "and it is better to eat a piece of fruit than drink juice," he says.

He sounds very adamant about all this. Has he ever been threatened as a result of his comments? "Not threatened as such, no, but it has made me unpopular and I am aware of the criticism and being marginalised to a certain extent," he says.

Government financing

A large part of his research is financed by the American government, and he says its funding is "more substantial" than that of Spain and other European countries.

"America has a serious obesity problem: 40 per cent of the population is obese and 10 per cent of adult American women are already candidates for bariatric surgery. That is terrible. They need to change their diet, no matter what. And we're following in their footsteps. What we saw in the US 15 years ago is now happening here," he says.

So is the Mediterranean diet the answer? "Well, I'm 1.78 metres tall and I have weighed 70 kilos since I was 17, so it is working for me," he laughs. "I haven't drunk soft drinks for a long time, not even the sugar-free ones, or the ones with sweeteners. And I find junk food repulsive. At first I used to fancy it sometimes, but nowadays I can't stand it. My favourite dish of all is 'ajoblanco' soup, although few people outside Andalucía know what that is".

The oldest of four children, he grew up eating the traditional gazpacho, fried fish and 'porra antequerana' made by his mother, first in Calle Alemania in the city centre before the family moved to Pedregalejo. There, he attended the San Estanislao de Kostka school.

The example of his father, a doctor who is passionate about improving attention for diabetic patients, marked him from a very young age.

"I remember when I was about eight years old I was already listening to him talk about proteins, carbohydrates and fats," he recalls. His father carried on working until he was 83. He doesn't plan to follow that example, though. "You have to retire at 70, but I still have a way to go and a great deal to do before I reach that age," he says.