The origins and history of the Mediterranean Diet
There is a growing body of scientific evidence on the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet (MD). The word diet derives from the Greek 'diaeta', which means not only food but refers to 'way of life'.
The term Mediterranean Diet was coined in 1960 by the American physiologist Ancel Keys and his wife Margaret in their book “How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way”. They identified the dietary habits of countries such as Greece - in particular Crete – and Southern Italy, with extension to other geographical areas of the Mediterranean basin. According to their pioneering studies, the dietary patterns of these countries were associated with longevity and reduced rates of morbidity and mortality from coronary heart diseases, cancer, and other diet-related chronic diseases in the 1960s. However, the Mediterranean Diet didn’t start in the 1960s, but much earlier with the settlement of the civilizations around the Mediterranean basin.
Traditionally, in the MD, food was consumed according to seasonality, dictated by climate and agriculture. In the Mediterranean culture, eating doesn’t exclusively represent the consumption of calories for the physiological sustenance of energy; rather, the social dimension of eating has elevated meals to something more than a means of satisfying biological impulses: “We do not sit down at the table just to eat, but to eat together” (Plutarch). Man’s genetic profile hasn’t changed significantly over the last 10,000 years, while his lifestyle is now revolutionized.
Modern and industrialized populations are characterized by reduced energy expenditure and increased calorie consumption. Intake of fats in the form of trans and saturated fats has increased, while intake of fibre, complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables (a source of vitamins and antioxidants), protein has decreased. In the United States, deaths from cancer and coronary heart diseases were been three times higher than in Crete, and this gap has only widened. The Lion Heart Study applied the Cretan diet to the French population and it showed cardioprotective and anti-cancer effects, proving that MD can be adapted for other populations.
Current trends of eating while watching television promote unhealthy and quick meals, and exclude social/family communication. Other factors that may contribute to the lifestyle promoted by the Mediterranean pattern include a calm psychosocial environment, a relaxed climate, as well as regular physical activity, including walking. Insufficient sleep and exercise have been linked to chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. It’s difficult to establish a uniform MD; each Mediterranean country brings its own culture, history, and traditions to food and nutrition. Despite their diversity, Mediterranean regions share some common dietary habits, that remain a solid basis for the type of food consumed that is responsible for health benefits.
Keys’ research highlighted the three primary components of the MD: olive oil, wine, and bread. The classic MD is characterized by a high monounsaturated fat/saturated fat ratio, low total fat (<30%), low saturated fat (<10%), moderate alcohol intake (mainly wine), and high intake of vegetables, fruit, legumes, and cereals (complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre).