Mediterranean Diet was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013. (Photo: Cottonbro, Pexels)
Only by creating feasible habits throughout the entire food chain, from production through to consumption, will it be possible to maintain the Mediterranean diet's health and sustainability benefits
If we are to recover the Mediterranean diet, as well as its health and environmental benefits, we have to stop treating it as an idealized model frozen in time in the 1960s. To encourage citizens to once again follow the principles of this diet, a comprehensive approach that considers both its foods and its rituals and customs has to be adopted, according to two studies conducted by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) published in the open access scientific publication International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
"Instead of recommending only the products that people ate in the past, we have to start by looking at the food people eat now and how they consume it," said UOC Foodlab’s research group principal researcher, F. Xavier Medina, who is also the director of the UNESCO Chair on Food, Culture and Development at the UOC. "Our lifestyle has changed and we no longer eat like we did 50 years ago. Not just because our working hours are different, we have less time to cook or we are increasingly eating in front of a screen, but also because the products, their cooking times and the utensils and appliances we use to prepare them are also different. This is why campaigns that propose a model that is impossible to follow in modern society fail."
More than a food chart
According to the studies conducted by the Foodlab research group of the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, we need to contemplate the Mediterranean diet as a series of cultural aspects that shape how we eat and not just as a food chart. Both Medina and his team at the UOC highlighted that habits like eating in the company of others, sharing food and using local produce are just as important to our health and environment, and their benefits include regulating our appetite and favouring the choice of healthier meals.
According to the Medina, the Mediterranean diet should be considered as a whole in order to conserve its benefits and adapt them to different countries. "When we refer to sustainability, for example, we mean much more than the environment," he explained. "We have to incorporate the social and cultural dimension to ensure that the right habits are adopted throughout the entire food chain: from how crops are produced to what we end up buying at the market or supermarket."
Therefore, we recommend that to promote the advantages of this diet, it is necessary to include other actions such as fostering measures with certain types of production or preventing distribution from being concentrated in the hands of those who favour processed products. "It doesn't make sense to ask the public to consume olive oil if you don't then ensure that it is affordable," he explained.
And also to combat diseases, it is necessary to adopt a more comprehensive approach. In the obesity study, the researcher insisted that we should stop looking at this health problem as simply the result of consuming too many calories, but also look at lifestyles.
"Obesity includes many other aspects such as purchasing power, social class, stress, type of job and working hours, sedentary lifestyle, sleep patterns and psychological factors such as the image you project to others and to yourself." Therefore, considering these social and cultural questions is as necessary as formulating diets and recommending food.
"Over time we have come to understand that the Mediterranean diet, in addition to a healthy food model, is a cultural model – as UNESCO recognized in 2013 – that involves a certain way of eating: in company around a table instead of watching TV or looking at your smartphone and with food that, although very tasty, contains hardly any processed products," explained Medina. "Now we have taken another step and we look at how food affects our environment and sustainability, and the Mediterranean diet benefits them both."
Medina FX. Looking for Commensality: On Culture, Health, Heritage, and the Mediterranean Diet. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(5):2605. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18052605
Medina, F.X.; Solé-Sedeno, J.M.; Bach-Faig, A.; Aguilar-Martínez, A. Obesity, Mediterranean Diet, and Public Health: A Vision of Obesity in the Mediterranean Context from a Sociocultural Perspective. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 3715. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18073715
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F. Xavier Medina Luque
Professor in the Health Sciences Department
Director of hte UNESCO Chair on Food, Culture and Development
Expert in: Social anthropology; anthropology of food; food studies; wine and food tourism; Mediterranean cultures; social and ethnic identities.
Knowledge area: Food systems, culture and society.