Heavier in meat and potatoes than the Mediterranean version, it may be easier for Britons. By Sophie Morris


We’ve all heard plenty about the Mediterranean diet, a regime plush with vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, wholegrains, fish and gallons of extra virgin olive oil, which promises good health and longevity. But this summer is shaping up as the Atlantic diet’s moment in the sun, thanks to new research into the foods eaten regularly in Portugal and Galicia in northern Spain - Europe’s southeasterly stretch abutting the Atlantic Ocean.

The difference? This Atlantic diet permits more red meat, potatoes, eggs, dairy and wine than its Mediterranean counterpart. Sounds a bit more fun, right? Experts also point out it is easier to follow, especially if you live in another meat-and-potatoes location such as the UK.

I’ve long been an advocate of eating like the Portuguese do, thanks to 30 years of holidaying there - trips that leave me replete and always a few kilos lighter.

Anyone who has seen Emma Stone’s performance in Poor Things will remember the scene set in Lisbon in which she tastes a Portuguese custard tart - pastel de nata (inset, below) - for the first time. Delighted by their deliciousness, she demands more.

I’m devastated to admit that the Atlantic diet doesn’t mention these precious treats. But by eating the local diet when I’m in Portugal, I always feel better than when I’m at home in the UK.

And that’s not because I eat only “healthy” food; there are snack bars serving up pork and steak sandwiches dripping in fat all day long, and piri-piri chicken and chips from Portugal’s famous churrasqueiras.

I’m also partial to a giant bag of Lays crisps to go with my bottle of beer, though neither of these feature on the official Atlantic diet.

So why does this diet work? Though research is just beginning, promising results have got people talking. A six-month study of 231 families living in a rural Spanish town, published in February 2024, found that those following the Atlantic diet had a reduced risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome and high cholesterol.

The motivation was to discover if traditional and sustainable diets might also improve health. A December 2023 report revealed that this lifestyle reduces mortality from any cause, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, in a study of 36,000 people.

There’s always a complex history behind any national or geographic food story. In Portugal’s case, while the country has a long history of seafaring visitors from North Africa and beyond, the insularity of 36 years under the dictatorial rule of Salazar (1932-68) coupled with a fairly small economy that could better feed itself from homegrown or fished produce than expensive imports, has kept its cuisine fairly standardised for centuries.

FILLING FOODS “The diet takes us back to staples, making it quite sustainable,” explains Lily Keeling, Green Chef ‘s registered nutritionist. She points out that the inclusion of more red meat and dairy is a good way to achieve high levels of iron, zinc and B vitamins.

“The high levels of calcium and vitamin D help aid healthy, strong bones which is essential,” she says, “particularly for women.”

Others agree.

“The added protein in the Atlantic diet can contribute to overall satiety and is a crucial building block for muscle, bones, blood, skin and cartilage,” says Dr Harpal Bains, longevity doctor and the medical director of Harpal Clinic.

“This in turn speeds up the metabolism and will make us less likely to consume excessive amounts of processed foods, or high carb foods to attain satiety - a common issue in vegan and vegetarian diets.”

And Keeling adds: “It also has less of an emphasis on fizzy drinks, sweets and processed foods.”

SLOW FOOD Portuguese chef Luis Freitas grew up in the Algarve. His fisherman father would bring home fish for the family to cook together, with boiled potatoes, earthy wild broccoli and lots of high quality olive oil. “Portuguese food is amazing because you get a contrast of fresh foods, prepared very simply, and cured foods, preserved in olive oil and salt,” explains Freitas.

“But both are very healthy for you. All the produce is local, mostly from under 15 miles away. We don’t tend to import anything, we just eat what we get from neighbours and it’s all very seasonal. We also get to eat ingredients all year round by canning and preserving.”

How is it different from Mediterranean produce? “The Med is warmer so you get paler types of fish with more delicate flavours,” explains Freitas, who cooks food inspired by his Atlantic childhood as well as the Mediterranean at his new Margate restaurant, Colina.

“In the Atlantic you get fattier types of fish because it’s cold and they need to be more robust. We also cook things differently - lots of slow cooking and braising.”

Dr Bains points out that it’s an overall approach to food and lifestyle, not only individual dishes, that marks out the Atlantic diet for attention.

“Significant factors are the cooking methods - slow cooking - and the communal aspect, which is well known to contribute towards better lifestyle, connection with loved ones and encourages slow, thoughtful eating,” she says, adding that slow cooking preserves nutrients compared to high temperature cooking.

“It’s the ritual around cooking food which makes it taste good: taking the time to prepare it with love and care,” agrees Freitas. “In Portugal, it’s a whole process, everyone sits down together to plan a meal, chatting about how our grandmas most like to make things and using their techniques.”

Simplicity is key. The menu is mostly grilled fish, seafood and pork, potatoes, a few vegetables and salads, and puddings that might be sweet but are packed with nutrient-rich foods such as walnuts, almonds, figs and honey.

OTHER KEY INGREDIENTS “Honey has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial benefits, especially raw honey,” says Dr Bains. “Chestnuts are a great source of copper, manganese, vitamin C, fibre and folate. Many of these nutrients can be beneficial for heart health and regulating inflammation.”

Any drawbacks? “A high consumption of red meat can also affect your digestion so I’d recommend making sure this is balanced with plenty of vegetables,” says Keeling.

“As with all diets, moderation is key,” cautions Dr Bains. “The fact that triglyceride and fasting sugar levels remain high on the Atlantic diet suggests that carbohydrate content in this diet is still higher than ideal. We also need to keep in mind that our gut microbiota will be adapted differently to different cuisines and epigenetic factors depending on what our ancestors ate.” Gut microbiota or gut flora are the micro-organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in our digestive tracts.

MED VS ATLANTIC Both Dr Bains and Keeling say that the Atlantic diet might ultimately prove more effective than the Mediterranean diet, because it is easier to follow if you live in the UK.

“It mirrors a typical Western diet more closely, with more generous amounts of meat, bread and potato,” says Dr Bains. Keeling points out it can be cheaper, too, but warns against missing out on variety.

Now I’m thinking of my favourite holiday lunch, barbecued sardines drenched in oil and salt, with boiled potatoes. For a long time this cost €5 but is now around €8.

We can’t all access fresh sardines year-round, far less other Atlantic treasures such as mussels and clams, but tinned sardines and other seafood are cheap and easy to find without getting on a flight to Portugal.