Do you know that in 2013, UNESCO added the Mediterranean diet to “the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” of Italy, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, and Croatia to draw attention to its importance and to raise awareness of its significance? Why the Mediterranean diet is an intangible treasure of humankind worldwide? Let’s see.
Key components of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet, as we know it today, was originally inspired by the dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain in the 1940s and 1950s.
The lands around the Mediterranean Sea broadly follow the distribution of the olive tree, which provides one of the most distinctive features of the region’s diet – olive oil. The other two core elements of the Mediterranean diet are wheat and grape.
1. Olive oil
The olive appears to come from the region of Persia and Mesopotamia, at least 6,000 years ago. The Mediterranean region accounts for the world’s highest consumption of olive oil: in 2014, the highest-consuming country, Greece, used 17kg per head; Italy, 12kg, Spain 3kg; the United States for comparison used only 1kg per head.
Olive oil stimulates metabolism, promotes digestion and lubricates mucous membranes. Applied topically, olive oil has a long history of being used as a home remedy for skincare.
One tablespoon of olive oil (13.5g) contains:
- Fat: 13.50g – 21% of the Daily Value (DV). 77% of fat are monounsaturated fatty acids, 14% – saturated fatty acids, and 9% – polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Vitamin E: 1.9mg (10% of DV)
- Vitamin K: 8.1µg (10% of DV)
In the Mediterranean region, wheat was domesticated about 10,000 years ago and has become a staple food, a daily bread, for people living there. Wheat bread was already critically important in the empire of Ancient Rome, which included the entire region; at that time, around 2,000 years ago, North Africa was the “breadbasket” of the empire. Other staple wheat-based Mediterranean foods include pasta.
Grapes are grown for making wine, for drying as raisins, or for eating as table grapes. Wine grapes are often rich in tannins, while raisins and table grape varieties are chosen for their flavour.
The grape was domesticated between 7,000 and 4,000 BC between the Black Sea and Persia; archaeological evidence shows that wine was being made there by 6,000 BC, reaching Greece and Crete in the fifth millennium BC and Spain by the last millennium BC. Wine making started in Italy in the ninth century BC, and in France around 600 BC.
Grape production remains important in the Mediterranean area (but with much lower production in the Muslim countries), with a large part of the world’s harvest. Italy produced 8 million tonnes (mt) in 2013; Spain 7.5mt; France 5.5mt; Egypt 1.4mt; Greece 0.9mt; Algeria 0.6mt.
Although there are many variations of “Mediterranean diets”, the distinct Mediterranean diets include the same key components of high consumption:
- extra virgin olive oil (as the principal source of fat)
- vegetables (including leafy green vegetables)
- fresh fruits (consumed as desserts or snacks)
- cereals (mostly wholegrain)
Moderate consumption of:
- fish and seafood (especially marine blue species)
- dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt)
- red wine (with the exception of Muslim populations)
Low consumption of:
- red meat
- processed meat
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Here are some health effects of the Mediterranean diet:
- Heart disease: Many studies reported a decreased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease among those who follow the Mediterranean diet. The diet appeared to be effective in bringing about long-term changes to cardiovascular risk factors, such as lowering bad cholesterol level and blood pressure. The Mediterranean diet often is cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fiber. One of the main explanations is thought to be the health effects of olive oil included in the Mediterranean diet. An elevated consumption of olive oil is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular events and stroke, and several chronic diseases.
- Diabetes: A few studies found that the Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer: Some meta-analyses found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of cancer mortality.
- Cognitive ability: A small number of studies reported that greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slower cognitive decline.
- Anti-aging properties: A study in PLOS ONE analyzed the diets of 1264 women and 1655 men aged between 45 and 60 years old. Severity of facial skin aging was graded by trained investigators during a clinical examination using a 6-grade scale illustrated by photographs. It was found that a higher consumption of olive oil (more than 8.4 grams or 2 teaspoons a day) was associated with 31% fewer signs of aging compared to people who ate less than 3.8 grams (about 1 teaspoon). (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0044490)
The Mediterranean diet is based on what from the point of view of mainstream nutrition is considered a paradox: although the people living in Mediterranean countries tend to consume relatively high amounts of fat, they have far lower rates of cardiovascular disease than in countries like the United States, where similar levels of fat consumption are found. A parallel phenomenon is known as the French Paradox.