The traditional Mediterranean world has developed a diet model which is characterized by the convivial nature of the meals and a varied range of food items whose base lies in:
Photo: J Bouchut
- a huge consumption of fruits (fresh and dry), vegetables (fresh and dry) as well as cereals;
- a moderate consumption of red meat (mainly ovine and caprine) and poultry meat, compensated by consumption of sea or river products;
- fats: an almost exclusive use of olive oil;
- a low consumption of milk and butter but consumption of cheese and yoghurt;
- a heavy consumption of aromatic herbs and plants;
- red wine consumed (with moderation) mainly during meals.
Researchers from the Human Nutrition unit of the Reus University in Spain, consider that the food of the Arab Andalusia of the 13th century corresponds to a great extent to what was subsequently called Mediterranean diet. Cookery and dietetic books of Al-Andalus originate from Hippocratic dietetics. Is it likely that the Mediterranean diet is the daughter of the Hippocratic dietetics? Even though Hippocratic theories do not favour the consumption of fruits and vegetables, medieval Arabo-andalousian recipes are in fact rich in fish and meat-based recipes in which we find fruits and vegetables.
Studies on the link between health and Mediterranean diet were initiated in 1948 in Greece: in the aftermath of the war, the Rockefeller foundation coordinated an epidemiological study in Crete, in order to determine the state of health of the Cretans. To their surprise, the researchers noticed that the state of health was pretty good overall: the traditional diet of the Cretans, rich in cereals, fruits and vegetables, olives, revealed a consumption that clearly had much lesser animal products content than the diet in USA.
Between 1952 and 1960, an American researcher, Ancel Keys conducted a comparative study on feeding habits prevalent in 7 countries: USA, Finland, Holland, Japan, Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece (including Crete). This study revealed that the populations of Northern Europe and the United States have more cardiovascular risks than those from the Mediterranean area. These risks are related to an excessive consumption of saturated fatty acids, whereas olive oil would appear to be beneficial to health.
Ancel Keys also established the link between animal fats and cholesterol, based on a study on cardiovascular mortality in Naples and its comparison with cardiovascular mortality in the case of the British and Americans. Neapolitans, who eat lesser amounts of fats, had lower mortality rates.
The Mediterranean diet model mainly developed, till the early 1960s, in the Southern part of Italy, Greece and Crete. In these regions, high life expectancy rates and low rates of degenerative chronic diseases were noticed. Subsequently this feeding pattern underwent profound modifications: the Mediterranean people have now joined the industrial model of consumption, with a steep rise in the consumption of animal products, rich in saturated fats, industrially processed food products and outside food. As a consequence, we now find in these countries the same problems as the ones found in the other industrialized countries: development of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity.
In the 1990s, Dr Serge Renaud, a French researcher from Lyons, conducted a study on 605 patients who had suffered a myocardial infarction. The patients have been divided into 2 groups. Group 1 was put on a diet usually given to heart patients (decrease in cholesterol and reduction of fats). Group 2 were put on a slightly altered Cretan diet: bread, cereals, fruits and vegetables as well as abundant servings of fish, the main meat consumed: poultry, replacement of butter and cream by olive oil and canola oil based margarine. A convivial atmosphere was set in place with meals at the restaurant or with friends, twice a week, and the permission to drink 2 glasses of red wine during these meals. At the end of a year, there was 2/3 of lesser number of deaths recorded in the group 2 (Cretan diet), as compared to the group put on the usual diet for heart patients. At the end of 2 years, the number of deaths in the group 2 (Cretan diet), was lesser by 76 % as compared to the group 1, for cardiovascular diseases and by 70 % for deaths owing to all kinds of causes. At the end of 4 years, cardiac deaths of group 2 were lesser by 65 %, deaths owing to all kinds of causes by 56 % and deaths by cancer by 60 %.
Other studies have confirmed subsequently that the increase of longevity, decrease of cardiovascular diseases and cancers were favoured by a diet pattern inspired by Mediterranean diet.
- Top of page -
The advertising industry has marketed the Mediterranean food model under the name of "Cretan diet" in France and "Mediterranean Diet" in Anglo-Saxon countries.
More than a diet for losing weight, Mediterranean diet is much rather a “health regimen”, as one used to say in the Middle Ages. This type of food must make it possible to reach a nutritional balance which is favourable to good health and a sense of well-being.
Mediterranean diet (or the Cretan diet) can be represented by a pyramid:
- Every day, it is advised to consume cereals, fruits and vegetables. Fats are provided by olive oil, animal products come in the form of cheese and yoghurt. We can eat a slice of bread and drink a glass of wine (2 for men) with each meal. It is also recommended to drink 1.5 l of water per day (water, tea or herbal tea). Fresh fruits can be eaten in-between meals.
- A few times per week, we can eat fish, poultry, eggs and a few sweets.
- A few times per month, we can eat small quantities of red meat.
The recommended caloric intake is between 1800 to 2000 kcal/day, distributed according to various meals: 20-25 % in the morning, 45-50 % at midday, around 30 % at night.
Mediterranean food: example of meals over 1 week.
- Top of page -