UNESCO has defined the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage, i.e., “a set of knowledge passed down from generation to generation, constantly recreated by the communities, with the ability to provide a feeling of identity and continuity while promoting the respect for cultural diversity and human creativity”.
The concept of the Mediterranean Diet originated in the traditional eating habits of Greece and Southern Italy, in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, variations of this eating pattern can be found in other Southern Europe countries as well as in Western Asia and North Africa. Despite the diversity of eating habits and traditions of these populations, it is possible to identify a common eating matrix, based on the production and consumption of olive oil (Nestle, 1995).
The main characteristics of the Mediterranean eating pattern were established in 1993, at the International Conference on Diets of the Mediterranean (Serra-Majem, et al., 2004):
- Abundant consumption of plant foods (fruits and vegetables, unrefined cereals, fresh and dried legumes, nuts and seeds);
- Consumption of fresh, locally grown, minimally processed, seasonal products;
- Consumption of olive oil as a main source of dietary lipids;
- Low to moderate consumption of milk products, mainly cheese and yogurt;
- Low and infrequent consumption of red meat;
- Frequent consumption of fish;
- Low to moderate consumption of wine, mainly with meals.
The Mediterranean Diet is a complete and balanced dietary model, with numerous benefits for health status, longevity and quality of life (Antonia Trichopoulou, Bamia & Trichopoulos, 2009):
- The abundant presence of unsaturated fatty acids (mainly monounsaturated), from olive oil consumption – main source of oleic acid – and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish, nuts and seeds, together with a low consumption of saturated and trans fatty acids present in red meat, are important nutritional factors for the protection of cardio- and cerebrovascular health (Martinez-Gonzalez, et al., 2009; A Trichopoulou, 2003; Antonia Trichopoulou, Bamia & Trichopoulos, 2005;Willett, 2006).
- The ample supply of vitamins, minerals and substances with high antioxidant potential (such as flavonoids, catechins, isoflavones, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, amongst others), present in fruits, vegetables, fresh legumes and aromatics herbs, also helps lower the risk of developing neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases as well as several types of cancer (Scarmeas, et al., 2009; Sofi, Cesari, Abbate, Gensini & Casini, 2008).
- Minimally refined cereals (e.g. wheat and rice), together with potatoes and legumes, make up the main source of complex carbohydrates and calories (Qué es la dieta mediterránea?, 2002).
- A high consumption of plant products to the detriment of the consumption of animal products helps achieve a balanced daily energy intake, with 55 to 60% of daily energy intake derived from carbohydrates, 25 to 30% from lipids and 10 to 15% from protein (mainly from plant sources, e.g. legumes and cereals) (Qué es la dieta mediterránea?, 2002).
- Frugality and simplicity of daily meals are also key factors for the maintenance of the energy balance, therefore reducing the risk of developing obesity and other chronic metabolic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension (Martínez-González, et al., 2008; Panagiotakos, Polychronopoulos, 2007; Willett, 2006).
- Mediterranean-style cooking is simple and based on soups and stews incorporating vegetables and legumes, with modest amounts of meat and using onions, garlic and herbs to enhance flavors and aromas. This simplicity contrasts with a richer and elaborate cooking style reserved for special occasions (Valagão, 2011).
It is important to preserve and promote this lifestyle, as it encompasses not only a healthy diet, but also the history, culture and habits of the people who share it.