The term Mediterranean Diet refers to a nutritional model inspired by the food traditions and lifestyles usual in some countries of the Mediterranean basin.
The Mediterranean Diet takes its name, therefore, from the eating habits and consequent lifestyles of Spain, Italy and Greece and from the insights and research carried out since the 1960s by some scholars and researchers.
The model of the Mediterranean Diet is based on foods and their culinary traditions, the use of which is customary in countries of the Mediterranean basin. This model favors certain foods among which the following stand out: cereals, fruit, vegetables, seeds, olive oil, compared to a more rare use of red meat and animal fats (saturated fats), while it presents a moderate consumption of fish, white meat (poultry ), legumes, eggs, dairy products, red wine and desserts.
The beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet were analyzed starting from some medical dieticians, among which the Frenchman Paul Carton or the Swiss Maximilian Bircher-Benner stand out. They had hypothesized the health benefits of a diet with limited consumption of foods of animal origin such as dairy products, meat, eggs.
However, the concept of the Mediterranean diet was initially studied and introduced by the American physiologist Ancel Keys.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality in observational studies.
But the history of the Mediterranean Diet actually begins with the insights and insights of some researchers.
It was in the mid-1940s, during his brief military experience in a town in the Cilento area (Pioppi di Salerno), which was characterized by a notable longevity of the population, that the physiologist Ancel Keys had the intuition that the secret of that longevity , associated with good health had to be associated with a particular lifestyle.
Thus, starting from the early 1950s, Keys initiated an experiment called the “Seven Countries Study”, in which he examined a sample of 12,000 people aged between 40 and 60 residing in: Japan, the United States of America, Holland, Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. During this long period of study and analysis, Ancel Keys realized that the ethnic groups colonizing the Mediterranean basin, thanks to a healthier diet than the American one, had a lower incidence of those pathologies that could be defined as “diseases of well-being (overweight , diabetes, high cholesterol, etc.).
In the 1970s, the outcome of the study was disclosed in the United States with the publication of a book (Eat well and stay well, the Mediterranean way) in an attempt to promote the eating habits responsible for the greater longevity of Mediterranean populations. In this work, Ancel Keys advised above all to increase the consumption of cereals, vegetables, fruit, fish and olive oil, and to decrease that of meat (especially red and fatty) and refined sugars.
Particular credit must also be given to the Italian nutritionist Lorenzo Piroddi, author of the books “Cucina Mediterranea. Ingredients, dietary principles and recipes with a taste of the sun” and “Taste of the sun. Mediterranean diet: basic principles, ingredients and recipes for a correct diet”, as well as founder of a diet clinic.
Subsequently, numerous scholars have deepened both the intuition and the first scientific evidence of Piroddi and Keys, giving a definitive framework (with some exceptions) to the real concept of the Mediterranean Diet.
In the 90s, the first “Food Pyramid” was proposed, which summarized the key principles of the Mediterranean Diet, formalizing its health value.
Geographic area –
The geographical area that affects the Mediterranean diet includes the Mediterranean basin and in particular Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, Cyprus and Morocco.
As mentioned, the origin of the discovery of this diet, with significant social and cultural repercussions, started from the study of Ancel Keys who defined an area of Italy as the “long life triangle”. In particular, it referred to some coastal municipalities of the Cilento National Park: Pioppi, Acciaroli, Pollica, San Mauro, Castellabate, Agnone and Velia where the diet consisted, at least until forty years ago, of fruit, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil olive oil, legumes, fish, pasta and clean air.
Spain is also among the seat countries of the Mediterranean Diet. In particular, the city of Soria should be mentioned, located in north-eastern Spain, inserted among the symbolic places of the Mediterranean diet for having created, protected and transmitted this common cultural heritage. He has invested his resources in the identification, documentation and conservation of events, rituals, festivals, craft practices inherent to the Mediterranean diet. Some typical local products are renowned: wine, butter, pork, lamb and polenta.
Koroni in Greece must also be numbered, which overlooks the Gulf of Peloponnese and is surrounded by olive groves and cultivated gardens. The diet is mainly based on fruit, vegetables, oil and fresh fish.
Another city included is then Chefchaouen in Morocco. Fortress city located in northwestern Morocco, it is characterized by having the walls of the houses colored blue, just like the Indian Jodhpur, in Rajasthan. This place, full of excellent typical products such as olive oil, goat cheese and dried figs, has launched a sustainable development project which aims to preserve its rich agri-food culture.
Another symbolic city is Agros in Cyprus. The island of Cyprus has an important geographical position in the Mediterranean basin and families living in rural areas self-produce almost all of the food they eat on a daily basis. Chickpeas, beans, figs, sour herbs and dates are eaten. Agros is located in the southwest, in a mountainous area of the island. Surrounded by vineyards, almond, walnut and hazelnut trees, it offers a wide range of Mediterranean delights: sausages, lamb and sheep meat and delicious fruit jams.
We also remember Tavira in Portugal. In addition to Fado, since 2013 Portugal has also boasted its Mediterranean cuisine as a World Heritage Site. Tavira is located in the Algarve region of southern Portugal; it is a town overlooking the sea and produces typical products such as olive oil, fish products, oranges, aromatic herbs, vegetables, sea salt and cheeses.
Finally we include Brac and Kvar in Croatia. Since 2013 these two Croatian islands have been included in the list of symbolic places of the Mediterranean diet for the balanced diet and healthy lifestyle that characterizes them. The Dalmatian diet includes fresh fish, seafood, vegetables, fruit and wine.
As can be seen, the Mediterranean Diet, despite its logical ecological variations, includes an area that unites peoples and geography developed in the Mediterranean Basin, so much so that UNESCO underlines that the geographical reference is to the countries of the Mediterranean basin and their identity and cultural continuity.
To understand the foods covered by the Mediterranean Diet (but which we emphasize is not based only on food) we can refer to the so-called Food Pyramid.
It quantitatively defines the food composition of the Mediterranean diet, it is an image that at a glance clarifies what we should eat, how often and in what quantities. In the Food Pyramid we find the different types of foods: at the top are those to be eaten more rarely (once a month); as we go down we find foods to be taken with increasing frequency (daily), to direct people towards a balanced diet.
Over time, various versions of the Pyramid have been produced, the result of continuous research and updates. The most representative are the American and the Greek ones, the work of Dr. Walter Willet, doctor at the Harvard School of Public Health, in collaboration with Antonia Trichopolou and her husband Dimitrios, respectively professor in Athens and professor of epidemiology at Harvard. It recommends:
– every day unrefined cereals, vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, olive oil, milk and derivatives – and physical activity;
– weekly fish, eggs, small meat;
– monthly red meat, wine in moderation with meals.
Despite the age of the Mediterranean diet, the food pyramid dedicated to it has changed over time based on changes in eating habits and due to new discoveries on the subject of food. In particular, fats have been questioned, distinguishing between saturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Today, the daily consumption of “good fats” or polyunsaturated fats, such as those contained in extra virgin olive oil, walnuts, unsalted almonds and other vegetables, is considered excellent. Also with regard to carbohydrates, a distinction has been made between, for example, potato vegetables rich in complex carbohydrates and sweets instead rich in simple sugars, which favor the increase in the glycemic index, and therefore to be consumed in moderation. In summary, whole grain cereals, vegetables, fruit (fresh and dried in moderation), extra virgin olive oil, milk, yogurt, soy milk and derivatives remain to be preferred every day. In more moderation meat, fish and eggs. On the basis of water in large quantities, practicing regular physical activity.
On the basis of these observations we can say that the optimal daily nutritional requirement of the Mediterranean diet should be divided as follows:
– 60% carbohydrates, of which 80% complex (wholemeal bread, pasta, rice, corn) and 20% simple sugars;
– 15% protein;
– 25% fruit, vegetables and polyunsaturated fats, such as those contained in olive oil.
But the Mediterranean diet is not just a combination of foods, albeit an excellent one.
In Mediterranean cultures, meals with family or friends are an important moment of conviviality and represent a daily occasion for social exchange and communication.
In fact, the diet proposes consuming different types of food accompanied by a moderate consumption of red wine, enjoying the meal in a calm and relaxed atmosphere, and associating everything with the practice of regular physical activity.
The fundamental behavior is “eating together”, “sharing” which emphasizes the relevance of the family, the group and the community. This is accompanied by the values of hospitality, neighborly relationships, intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity.
As regards the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, scientific publications have multiplied in recent years demonstrating the clear correlation between the dietary composition of this diet and the reduction in the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, tumors, neurological diseases, etc. Below are the most emblematic examples.
– The Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart attack by about a third as it is rich in foods with high amounts of antioxidant and anti-atherosclerotic substances. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that adopting a Mediterranean-type food style after a heart attack reduces the possibility of new heart attacks by about 40%.
– The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the intake of foods that play a protective role for the brain: fruit and vegetables (rich in antioxidants), dried fruit (rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids with a protective effect), fish (rich in Omega 3, which make up the cell membrane of the nervous system).
– The high content of unsaturated fats, fibers, vitamins and trace elements with anti-free radical action has a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect.
– Prevention of sarcopenia which can be prevented by adopting a complete and balanced Mediterranean-type regimen combined with regular physical activity from an early age.
– Finally, the Mediterranean diet limits the intake of foods rich in saturated fats, is moderately caloric and provides for the intake of fibres, olive oil, walnuts and almonds rich in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins that regulate cholesterol and improve blood insulin sensitivity.
Not surprisingly, thanks to its therapeutic properties, since 2010, the Mediterranean Diet has been integrated by UNESCO among the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
According to UNESCO, cultural heritage cannot be understood solely as the set of works of art or monuments that have been preserved throughout history, but must also include the traditions, manifestations, customs and traditions that are handed down from generation to generation and which contribute to defining the cultural identities of the communities of the planet.
One of these intangible or intangible heritages of humanity, a sort of living heritage, is the Mediterranean Diet which represents all those shared practices that concern not only a certain type of diet, but also the conservation and development of traditional activities, of the rites, techniques and crafts related to fishing and agriculture of the Mediterranean communities. As mentioned, Unesco has identified and recognized seven symbolic places.