The Mediterranean diet: not just for health

Described in the 1950s by Ancel Keys, the Mediterranean diet is not only wholesome but also sustainable and popular. But where is it going now?

The Mediterranean diet, known by science as among the most healthy diets in the world and described for the first time by the studious American scientist Ancel Keys, is in fact very Italian. The author of the first historical investigation, the celebrated “Seven Countries Study”, was in fact highly weighted towards Cilento, the Campanian coastal area where this first research on diet and nutrition of the population was conducted in the 1950s.

From then on, the Mediterranean diet became a reference point for the positive relationship between dietary habits and a capacity for prevention of chronic degenerative diseases. Its benefits for health, quality and longevity are associated with the composition of its typical dietary elements, primarily of vegetable origin, and their diversity and balanced consumption.

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Unfortunately, this very Italian diet is increasingly not followed in Italy, especially by the youth and the low socio-economic groups. Numerous studies have demonstrated an increase in obesity. According to recent data, 31% of adults are overweight and 10% obese, while 22.2% of children aged 8-9 are overweight and 10.6% obese. This is more widespread in the south, particularly in Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia and Basilicata.

In fact, over the years, the Mediterranean diet has almost exclusively been associated, practically as a medical prescription, with the health benefits of its nutrients. But let’s not forget, we do not eat nutrients but food, with its aesthetic, social, religious, economic and environmental values. What makes it special is that it is not just a list of fresh, seasonal, local and often traditional foods, but rather a way of cooking, matching ingredients, presenting and sharing at the table. The situation and the environment in which it is eaten and produced are key components of the Mediterranean dietary model, as is a physically active life, frugality and a sense of the value of food. Let’s not forget that the Greek word δίαιτα (diet) means balance, lifestyle. The Mediterranean diet is itself a way of life , which incorporates flavours, tastes, creativity, dietary products, cultivation and social spaces linked to the land. In 2010, it was even recognised by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

The solely “healthy” perception, however, removes all cultural factors linked to the diet. While on one hand, this was one of the reasons for its success with elite groups in each part of the world, including a very small section of the Italian population, on the other hand, it probably contributed to distancing itself from those layers of the population which encounter the greatest health problems associated with poor diet. But it’s not easy to go back, and for the Mediterranean diet, it’s now necessary to reconstruct, at least partly, a culture more suitable to the times and for all people. A culture which must also include the idea of sustainability.

Recent estimates by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, indicate that in 2050, there will be 9 billion people in the world who must eat healthily and sustainably. Considering that today, 842 million people suffer from hunger, 2 billion lack essential micronutrients for health and development, such as vitamins and minerals, and 1.4 billion people are overweight, of which 500 million are obese, it is now more necessary than ever to revise dietary models to be able to tackle the challenges emerging from new lifestyles and from their global environmental impact.

To tackle this challenge is to expand studies into diet, to date developed solely for health, to also include sustainability. For some years, the FAO, in collaboration with the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies in Bari, has been conducting a series of activities on the Mediterranean diet as a study model for evaluating the sustainability of diets and food consumption. Activities which in 2010 led to a definition of the concept of sustainable diet as “low environmental impact diets which contribute to food and nutritional safety and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets protect and respect biodiversity and ecosystems, are culturally acceptable, accessible, economically appropriate and convenient; are nutritionally suitable, safe and healthy, and optimise natural and human resources.”

 The results to date clearly indicate that the Mediterranean diet is also a healthy and sustainable diet model, essentially through the reduced environmental impact of its primarily vegetable dietary elements.

To return the Mediterranean diet to being a popular diet in Italy could perhaps contribute to changing the current “wholesome” perception of the Mediterranean diet by transforming it into an aware, healthy, sustainable and non-sedentary lifestyle that is accessible to all. A Mediterranean diet fully brought up to date, especially for the young, to educate them on the pleasure of healthy and sustainable, Mediterranean eating, rediscovering a taste for a diversity of flavours and therefore products. A Mediterranean diet also capable of incorporating beauty, colour and flavours and the multiple culinary interpretations associated with a diversification of local dietary traditions.

EXPO 2015 in Milan can be the ideal place for promoting this change in perception of the Mediterranean diet, updated into not only a healthy diet but also a sustainable and popular one, where food and conviviality together represent an important element for sharing, conversation and social communication.

Sandro Dernini

Sustainable Food Systems Programme – Food and Agriculture Organization


Also see the interview with the food writer Claudia Roden on the American taste for the Mediterranean diet.

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