what exactly is the Mediterranean diet?


It is a food model acclaimed by all nutritionists and doctors in the world. In 2010 it was declared an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

The Mediterranean diet is a nutritional model originally inspired by the food tradition of Italy, Greece, Spain, and Morocco; although in November 2013 this recognition was extended to Cyprus, Croatia, and Portugal. This nutritional model was abandoned in the period of the economic boom of the sixties and seventies because it was considered too poor and unattractive compared to other food models coming in particular from wealthy America. However today, in Italy, people tend to believe that the Mediterranean diet is that of Italians, that it is a heritage of humanity as the best food model in the world, that it is the one that promotes longevity and allows you to stay healthy for a long time. But is it really so?

Nobody does the true Mediterranean diet anymore

Actually no. A basic consideration that allows us to frame the topic in a more objective way is that people tend to think that those who live in the Mediterranean eat the Mediterranean diet. This is a fundamental mistake. In fact, studies tell us that almost no one does the true Mediterranean diet today. In Italy the prevailing diet is a typical Western diet: too much pasta, too much bread, too many sugars, too many sandwiches, too many sandwiches, too much pizza, too many sweets … Of the Mediterranean in the classical sense there is very little left because the things that should be consumed mainly in order to be classified as a Mediterranean diet, they are actually: very abundant portions of seasonal vegetables, seasonal fruit, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, fish mainly as proteins, 100% whole grains instead of refined ones, red wine (the latter in moderate quantities), sourdough bread, extensive use of garlic, onion, and aromatic herbs, very few sweets (the typical dessert is a fruit), dried fruit and seeds regularly, little milk and dairy products (mainly of cheese and yogurt, then fermented dairy products), little meat preferably white such as chicken, red meat (beef, pork) a few times a month, and finally eggs: five to seven a week or even more.

Mediterranean diet
Mediterranean diet

What comes out is a healthy and preventive eating style, if by Mediterranean diet we mean what has just been listed and which is part of the true (traditional) diet of the peoples of the Mediterranean. It is a pity that in Italy today the “television” chefs and nutritionists continue undeterred to make people believe that the Mediterranean diet means eating every day (and several times a day) brioches and biscuits for breakfast, rusks with jam, bread, pasta, crackers, and maximum two eggs per week; because otherwise, it raises blood cholesterol. This is a false myth about the consumption of eggs, among other things, now widely disproved by the most recent scientific research that shows that the excessive increase in cholesterol levels in the blood is not due to foods that contain cholesterol, but to one regulation imbalance caused by the hormone leptin.


It is sound when placed in its original context

The Mediterranean dietary model, healthy and protective for health, which we have just described must also be seen as an element that accompanies a typical lifestyle in which there was a high daily calorie consumption given by physical effort, because it was mainly of people who worked in agriculture and therefore used the body constantly. This bond is not something optional. On the other hand, it is inseparable and determines its success in terms of real protective effects on health and prevention of pathologies. In fact, like all other preventive food models (there are others also in Asia, Northern Europe, etc.), the fundamental characteristicit is a rediscovered balance between income and consumption. I purposely use the adjective “rediscovered” because it is evident that much of the original model of the past has been lost, and that today Italian society has gone from being the agricultural and peasant one of a few centuries ago to an industrial, technological and therefore very more based on a sedentary lifestyle. The ancestors who populated the coasts of the Mediterranean lived in an agricultural rather than an industrial society. They worked in the fields for many hours a day, they did very physical and tiring work, they burned a lot of calories. Their daily caloric requirement could even reach 4000-5000 Kcal, those that a professional athlete in endurance sports such as a cyclist or a marathoner burns today. It is common for these people to also eat generous amounts of grains and breads, remaining in perfect health and lean. Their need for carbohydrates was very high and the body required meals with high caloric and energy density to be able to face the work in the fields. Today, on the contrary, we live in an industrial society and people have an average caloric requirement of 2400 Kcal. Therefore, following a diet focused on the consumption of bread and cereals every day and at the same time having a sedentary lifestyle, leads to gaining weight and inflammation. In fact, one should avoid talking about diet as something separate from physical activity. The word diet, moreover, was understood by the Greeks and Romans aslifestyle and daily habits , therefore not only food but also movement.

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The perfect diet does not exist outside the context of life

Is it possible that today’s nutritionists are so oblivious to this simple culture gap? It is possible that we continue undeterred to say that we must eat cereals every day, and indeed we prepare the food pyramids and nutritional recommendations to the population by stating that 55-60% of the caloric needs must come from carbohydrates (in Italy when we say carbohydrates yes basically means cereals: bread, pasta, pizza, desserts)? They treat us all, in practice, as if we were marathon runners, but in doing so they push the population to a wrong nutrition and to fill up on carbohydrates that will never be disposed of, in essence. This is a serious fault of the medical-nutritionist class in Italy, an almost unforgivable myopia, which seems almost a desired, sought after fact of connivance with the food industry, which pushes for people’s overeating and obesity, with the ever increasing production of foods with a high density of carbohydrates and calories. There are also conspiracy hypotheses, between the medical-nutritionist class and the pharmaceutical profit system, which is based on the profits deriving from the sale of anti-diabetes, anti-cholesterol, anti-obesity drugs. Personally, I cannot exclude that several illustrious members of the Commissions responsible for the Guidelines for the nutrition of the Italian population have ties and interests that intersect with those of the great Italian pasta factories and the Italian confectionery industry. It must also be sadly observed how food and prevention education has always been at a very low level in Italy, both on TV where every day the triumph of sugar and white flour parades in every program on food, and in medical clinics, school canteens, hospital canteens. No dietary education is provided, on the contrary they are taught to eat everything that causes damage and reduces health. Strange, isn’t it? How can a housewife or a sedentary employee who follow a diet based on 55-60% of the calories from carbohydrates stay healthy? A housewife of the 1800s, who also worked in the fields during the day, could easily do it, but certainly not the sedentary person of today. indeed, it is taught to eat everything that causes damage and reduces health. Strange, isn’t it? How can a housewife or a sedentary employee who follow a diet based on 55-60% of the calories from carbohydrates stay healthy? A housewife of the 1800s, who also worked in the fields during the day, could easily do it, but certainly not the sedentary person of today. indeed, it is taught to eat everything that causes damage and reduces health. Strange, isn’t it? How can a housewife or a sedentary employee who follow a diet based on 55-60% of the calories from carbohydrates stay healthy? A housewife of the 1800s, who also worked in the fields during the day, could easily do it, but certainly not the sedentary person of today.

The island of Crete and the true followers of the Mediterranean diet

The first scholar to talk about the Mediterranean Diet was an American doctor and scientist, Ancel Keys , who in the 50s and 70s of the twentieth century thoroughly studied the eating habits of various peoples of the Mediterranean basin , including the Italians (he made studies in Campania to be precise) and the inhabitants of the island of Crete. Ancel Keys observed in the island of Cretea very specific Mediterranean diet based on onions, salad, Feta cheese, olives, Greek yogurt, a little fish, very little meat. The Cretans ate little in general and fasted often because they followed the ritual fasts of the Orthodox Church, finally they led a very active lifestyle and were much outdoors. He found that heart disease was not widespread at all among the inhabitants of Crete, people were quite healthy into old age. This prompts us to make an important consideration for us today, namely that the eating habits of the peoples of the Mediterranean can also be very different depending on the geographical area. For example in Naples Ancel Keys observed that among the popular classes the typical diet was based on variously seasoned pasta, salads with a splash of olive oil, all types of seasonal vegetables and often cheese, all complemented by fruit and in many cases accompanied by a glass of wine  . So in Crete they followed a diet low in carbohydrates but high in fat, while in Naples exactly the opposite, rich in carbohydrates and low in fat. The validity of these eating models was always linked to the overall lifestyle of the people (movement, fasting, etc.). Sardinia also offered science a food model linked to longevity . The Sardinian one is one of the various groups of centenarians present in the world: they are also present in Japan, in South America, in the USAand in other regions of the planet. In Sardinia, however, the percentage of centenarians is three times that of all Western countries. Long-lived Sardinian people eat meat and dairy products all their life but these are meats and derivatives from healthy animals that do not come from the large-scale distribution circuit, but from farming chains that are very different from those of intensive and industrial farming typical for example of the Plain Padana.

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This is a fact to reflect on, also because in Sardinia animal foods are consumed regularly almost every day (especially milk and cheeses) but the average health of the Sardinian population is very good. And the Sardinians are on average a very active and not very industrialized population, compared to others who live in Italy. Or at any rate we can apply these characteristics to the Sardinians of the recent past, let’s say our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were certainly very active, worked outdoors in the fields and traveled considerable distances even on foot during the day, rather than by car or other means. of transport. So once again the constant of an active and not at all sedentary lifestyle returns, in addition to the dietary model.Neapolitans, Sardinians and Cretans are all examples of Mediterranean food models, but different and with specific characteristics for each of them. The Cretans had a traditional lifestyle very different from what can be considered as such in Italy today.

There is no single Mediterranean diet

Even among southern and northern Italians, we find other different culinary habits. Let’s give some examples: pasta with tomato, how traditional is it as a dish in Italy? The tomato arrived in Europe in the 16th century, from America, but was long considered a poisonous food and was little used. During the early 1900s, tomatoes were not used in Italy, proof of this is the fact that the famous recipe book by Pellegrino Artusi “Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well”, which many consider the bible of traditional Italian cuisine, you mention the tomato only 2 or 3 times out of hundreds of recipes. The pizza margheritait was invented in Naples in 1889, but at the end of the 19th century most Italians did not know what it was; and still in Artusi’s manual, published in 1891, there is no trace of pizza (the name appears 3 times but refers to other dishes and not to Neapolitan pizza). The word pizza entered the Italian dictionary only in 1915 and in northern Italy it did not spread before the second post-war period, when the Allies arrived and brought garlic, olive oil and tomato along the way up Italy; which in northern Italy did not exist because they used butter, lard and onion. Even olive oil was not at all widespread in the traditional cuisine of northern Italy at that time. It is therefore evident how the culinary traditions of the peoples of the Mediterranean basin can be different from each other.

In conclusion, there are various models of traditional Mediterranean-type nutrition that are configured as healthy. However, the Mediterranean peoples of the past decades ate whole foods, while nowadays these foods are eaten in the refined version; they worked in the fields for many hours, while now sedentary activity is prevalent. In short, it certainly cannot be said that the true Mediterranean Diet is followed, even if many have not yet realized it.

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