The word diet originates from the ancient Greek word diaita, meaning life style, which is exactly what the Mediterranean diet is; it is much more than a simple nutritional plan.
The mediterranean diet is a lifestyle, not just a set of nutritional guidelines that combine local produce, traditional recipes and the typical cooking from a particular place. Sharing food, celebrations and traditions, together with moderated daily physical activity, encouraged by good weather, combine to create this lifestyle, recommended by modern science in order to improve our health, making of it an excellent model for healthy living.
The mediterranean area is a complex region, where cultures have converged since the beginning of civilization. Its geographical features have enabled trade and cultural exchange for thousands of years, promoting the development of the western civilization as we understand it today. And food has not escaped the influence of the different mediterranean cultures. Every mediterranean area has its own particular culinary traditions whilst sharing common features typical of what today we know today as the mediterranean diet. Developed over hundreds of years, these form a rich heritage passed down to us by our ancestors.
Such is the importance of the mediterranean diet that on 16th November 2010 it received the UNESCO distinction of intangible cultural heritage, providing for its protection and promotion and thus allowing people the world over to understand the benefits of this way of life and its food.
American physiologist Ancel Benjamin Keys (26 January 1904 – 20 November, 2004) –well known for his contributions to studies into diet and cardiovascular disease– is considered the primary promoter of the mediterranean diet, introducing the idea over a century ago. His interest in the relationship between cholesterol in blood and cardiovascular diseases began back in 1949. His most relevant contribution to science was the Seven Countries Study, the first cross-national study into the potential relationship between coronary disease and the presence of cholesterol in the diet.
He and his co-workers observed that the incidence of coronary disease was much higher in those countries where the diet was characterized by a high total fat intake, particularly saturated fats. They also concluded that the frequency of coronary heart disease was higher in northern European countries than in those in the South. These studies helped popularize the idea of the Mediterranean diet as put forward by Keys and his co-workers.
Characteristics of the mediterranean diet:
Typical of the mediterranean diet is the use of local, fresh, seasonal foods wherever possible. The abundance of vegetable produce –bread, pasta, rice, green vegetables, fruit and nuts– ensures plenty of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. Olive oil provides the main source of fat and a moderate consumption of fish, seafood, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and a little red meat also feature. A small amount of wine is commonly drunk with meals.
The types of foods that make up the mediterranean diet and their recommended intake, along with some indicators of lifestyle, are shown in the following pyramid. The base of the base pyramid contains the basic, most important foods whilst those at the top should be included only occasionally in the diet.