Mediterranean Diet – All about it

Welcome to our series about Mediterranean Diet. This is the first part of it. 

Mediterranean Diet

Eating habits of a people are linked to a number of factors ranging from the local availability of food, at the history, traditions and economy. This creates significant differences from country to country. The peoples who have inhabited the shores of the Mediterranean sea for centuries are united by a cultural matrix resulting from the substantial similarity of environmental resources and climatic conditions, as by the long periods of domination of the Romans and the Arabs before then. In the countries of the Mediterranean basin while differing in language and traditions, there is a common diet that may, or rather could be identified as the “Mediterranean diet”, a dietary pattern that in the light of the latest scientific researches seems now be completely extinct.

The diet plays a central role in the well-being of human beings. The word “diet” comes from the Greek language, its original meaning is: lifestyle, appropriate method of eating. In the collective imagination this term is often associated with fasting, abstinence, sacrifices and hardships. Diet instead means to be educated, to eat properly, to be conscious consuming healthy food, eating in the right quantities, associating to this a socially active life based on physical activities.

Concept of the Mediterranean diet

The concept of the Mediterranean diet was an intuition of Italian nutritionist Lorenzo Piroddi (Italian Wikipedia: Lorenzo Piroddi) that in the thirty years of the last century, first recognized the connection between diet, obesity and diabetes mellitus. He suggested a dietary pattern from the Mediterranean countries, which was distinguished by its high healthiness. Later on, thanks to the results of epidemiological studies conducted by the american physiologist and nutritionist Ancel Keys, in the fifties and sixties of the last century, was realized how disadvantaged people of the small towns of southern Italy, eaters bread, onion and tomato, they appeared to be healthier than the citizens of New York, and their own relatives who emigrated years ago in the United States. Ancel Keys, began to thoroughly study the diet of the inhabitants of two villages situated in the south of Italy: Nicotera (small fishing village of the Calabria region) and Pollica (small fishing village of Campania region).

Ancel Keys

Ancel Keys

Ancel Keys along with other researchers then gave birth to the “Seven Countries Study” (Finland, Japan, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, U.S.A. and former Yugoslavia) based on comparison the diets of 12.000 people (age 40/59). The populations eating Mediterranean food like Italian and Japanese, showed low levels of cardiovascular diseases. In the village of Nicotera in September 1957 during this widespread study, 607 men were examinated. The results showed only 4 cases of heart attack and only 3 cases of diabetes mellitus. (Fidanza F. et al.,2010). People examinated in this widespread research were just farmers and fishermen. They had a better lifestyle eating low amounts of food, almost all vegetable (expecially: wholemeal bread, fruit, fresh tomato, red onions and others vegetables).

The typical Mediterranean diet of the inhabitants of these small Italian communities was soon declared: “Mediterranean diet Italian reference”. It was characterized by a certain simplicity and by being mainly vegetarian. The consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes was high. Fish consumption was good and little was meat consumption (almost exclusively of pig, sheep and goat). The pork fat was used as main condiment along with the olive oil (when they could use it). The consumption of wine and olives was high. The calories consumed daily were distributed as follows:

  • 13-15% from proteins (of which more than 50% came from vegetables),
  • 25-30% from fats (with preference of extra virgin olive oil and healthy fats present in fish),
  • 55-60% from carbohydrates (mostly complex: wholemeal bread, flour, pasta, rice, corn).

This typical Mediterranean diet is rich in plant foods containing a lot of antioxidants, substances produced physiologically by the human body and taken also in through the diet. Intake of antioxidants in the diet, seem to have a positive impact on the body’s ability to respond to oxidative stress, a key pathogenesis factor for the onset of many degenerative diseases. Consumption of antioxidants may therefore play a significant role in maintaining human health, especially in the prevention of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome and some types of cancer. A daily good consumption of vegetables food can reduce the risk of these diseases for preventative effect of vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A and polyphenols (substances product naturally to the plants).

The traditional Italian diet, now seems has been upset in its basic structure. The current food pattern keeps very few aspects related to the Mediterranean diet of the past. Plant proteins typical of farmer diet (legumes) and fats of good nutritional value contained in fish of our seas, have been replaced over the years by proteins of animal origin (red meat) and fats with often questionable nutritional quality, often masked with advertising slogans, bright colors and deceptive messages (snacks, chips, american sandwiches). The introduction of daily simple sugars (candy and various drinks) has increased, it has drastically reduced the intake of plant foods (dietary fiber and natural antioxidants).

Nicotera, Italy

Nicotera, Italy

The results of some latest studies in the village of Nicotera are in confirmation of what is written. Mediterranean Diet Index (MDI) it’s a statistic index that shows as a population adheres to Mediterranean diet. MDI index has drastically decreased from the sixties to the nineties of the last century and it shows how in Italy, probably Mediterranean diet has disappeared. (A. De Lorenzo et al.,1996 – Fidanza A. et al., 2004). By the mid-nineties, compared to the sixties, there was an increase in the consumption of fats in general, and lower consumption of carbohydrates. Protein intake is unchanged, with an increase of protein derived from meat.

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