The Mediterranean Diet

Ancel Keys (at the center, standing), Paul Dudley White (at his left), and Flaminio Fidanza (at his right), during a press conference held in Gioia Tauro, Calabria, Italy, 1960 – Unknown author Public Domain

The discovery of the Mediterranean diet is attributed to the nutritionist Ancel Keys, who following the fifth fleet in 1945, landed in Salerno.

Stationed in the Battipaglia area he noticed that cardio-vascular illnesses, widespread in his own country, were quite rare. In fact, among the population of Cilento, there was a particularly low incidence of the so-called “diseases of affluence” (arteriosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes).

These observations were the basis for a research program that examined eating habits in Japan, the U.S., Yugoslavia, Germany, Finland, and Italy. The results showed without any doubt that the eating habits of more than 12.000 subjects were analyzed, that the more they moved away from the Mediterranean areas, the higher the incidence of the above illnesses was recognized.

A sensational discovery that led American scientists to set up in the 70s a widespread program of preventative medicine based on the studies conducted by Keys in Cilento.

Thus followed the international success and popularity of this Mediterranean diet consisting of whole and natural foods, essential for the health of the individual. The basic elements of this diet are cereal (bread, pasta, polenta), legumes, vegetables, fruit, and olive oil.

Normally the word “diet” carries a negative connotation, associated with limited food, depending on a particular pathological state or an excessive increase in “fat” in the body. Instead, if we look up at the etymology of the word “diet” in the dictionary, we find that it originates from a Greek word with the meaning of “life, lifestyle, way of living”.

In fact, eating is one of the fundamentals of our life, and being more aware of it can help us to live better and longer. Today all doctors agree on prescribing a diet based on a Mediterranean model, that appropriately divides the daily calories for the different nutrients to prevent the beginning of the “diseases of affluence”:

– 60% carbohydrates (cereals, pasta, bread)
– 30% fats (olive oil, butter, lard)
– 10% protein (meat, fish, legumes)

The Mediterranean diet pyramid

The Mediterranean diet can be represented graphically as a pyramid. On the lower level, there are the foods that variously combined can be consumed every day.

Moving up the pyramid we find the foods which should be consumed a few times a week. At the top, we have only one food, meat which should be eaten only a few times a month.

Meridians and parallels of European eating habits

In discussing European cuisine we need to think about a map where the political borders have been canceled leaving space only for meridian lines and parallels, for mountain ranges, rivers, and seas.

In this way, we can recognize the shape and content of the various cultures that are once so well-blended as in the case of Mediterranean Greece or northern Denmark or once so rich, various, and even contrasting as in the case of France and Italy.

To understand better how these elements are located on our silent map, let’s look at the sumptuously laid tables, where every nation offers not only a view of their own gastronomic heritage but also the lifestyle that has created it.

Going through the calendar we can see how the dates, names, and seasons have become “festivals”. Even if the number of days, the weather of the seasons, the government of countries change, The “festivals remain – San Nicola in the north, Santa Lucia in the south, Christmas and Easter. The churches themselves seem to have re-thought the eating precepts, with which they used to prepare and follow the celebrations. The fasts for Lent, Advent, and Sunday morning are finished, yet none want to give up a good banquet of pheasant, German goose, Italian capon, or international turkey.

In Europe every Country has interpreted the holy and the secular days according to their history and culture – for example, Easter is more important than Christmas in Orthodox Greece, but the differences are hazy, only small signs remain.

Some religious festivals have been lost – San Giuseppe gives very few Tortelli in Lombardy, less zeppole in Naples. The new celebrations find it difficult to establish themselves, but the true greed-inspiring inventions and spectaculars of modern Europe use the past. They bring it back to life and make it more efficient – Oktober fest in Germany, Kermesse in Fiandra, with a festivity of games, the Palio in Siena and the Feria in Spain, all tap into a breathing and well-fed affluence.

Moreover, we have Carnival which outdoes all the festivities. The Carnival has the advantage of having its own broken historical dignity and an uninterrupted string of sweets – krapfen in Germany, bigne’ in France, pansees brouillues in Luxembourg, Shrove Tuesday in England, the castagnole in Rome, and the cenci in Tuscany.

Then we can mention the celebration of the anniversaries – the French Revolution, the discovery of America, the recently celebrated turn of the Millennium. A myriad of feasts accompanies them, each one a feverish recovery of all the joyous signals of the past.

If the Belgians of the 1800s adorned their festival tables with a wild game from the Ardennes and exotic fruits, we cannot forget that the Danish Vikings used to eat sweet-scented bread and drink valuable wines in silver goblets, served on snowy-white delicate lace table clothes.

To lay the table sumptuously, decorate it with flowers, place markers and candles is a traditional gesture that brings all of Europe closer to a common feeling of secular or religious respect for the meal and the guests.

The styles and occasions are many but the spirit which dominates the banquet table is the same. A centerpiece of freshly picked flowers in the south or dried flowers in the north. Place markers of rough and curved wood in continental Europe, clay or terracotta figurines in the peninsulas and islands of Europe. Silver candelabras for winter, floating candles in a glass bowl for summer evenings. From East to West, from North to South, the tablecloth is required: snowy-white, simple cotton, modern prints, and lines.

Another important element in interpreting European culinary culture comes from drinking habits. Climate, environment, and customs influence “drinking” either as a basic need or a social form of communication. As soon as a drink is named, wine, beer, or coffee, there is immediately an association of ideas and tastes. Taverns, cafes, and bars become the spaces for people to meet and socialize. From Ireland to Bavaria the beer predominates, from Paris to Pantelleria, from Oporto to Rodhes, the wine is the main drink. For centuries along the Rhine, wine civilized the hostile populations. In a few decades, a small cup of coffee has provided a passport for the Italians.

Economic laws and atavistic resistance exist side by side and continuously change. Perhaps there is not yet a single Europe and certainly, there are not many “Europes” anymore. There is only one territory divided mainly into two large cultural basins: the continental and silent North and the rough and noisy South.

European eating habits are much more similar from East to West than from North to South. From Berlin to Dublin there is a thread of common foods the names of which may vary. The English Chester and the Belgian hevre are variants of the classic Dutch red and brilliant rind cheese. The meat-based diet of the Irish Celts was almost identical to the Teutonic one. Northern and central Europe have imposed canapes in all its forms: hapjs in Holland, smorrebre in Denmark, and smorgds in Germany.

Moving south towards the Mediterranean are Spain, southern France, southern Italy, and Greece we have a fairly similar overview. Beef disappears, replaced by sheep and goat which influences the wide consumption of different cheeses, quite similar from region to region in color, shape, and consistency: feta in Greece, manchego in Spain, chevre in France and pecorino in Italy, fresh or seasoned.

Butter’s main role in northern cooking is replaced by olive oil. The cooking becomes tastier and enriched with a wide variety of herbs and spices growing from Portugal to Rhodes, from Provence to Tuscany. In the North, blueberries, raspberries, and forest berries soften the strong taste of red meat and the rather particular taste of the game. Around the Meditteranean sea thyme, rosemary, mint, marjoram, and parsley flavor the white and delicate chicken meat and fish.

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Enrico Massetti was born in Milan, Italy.
Now he lives in Washington, DC, USA.
Still, he regularly visits his hometown
and enjoys going around all the places in his home country
especially those he can reach by public transportation.

Enrico loves writing guide books on travel in Italy
to help his friends that go to Italy to visit
and enjoy his old home country.
He also publishes books on the Argentine tango dance.

You can reach Enrico at