The Mediterranean diet is an expression of the way of life and identity of the peoples and cultures that inhabit the region and is, therefore, a concept that goes far beyond food. It is rather a lifestyle based on tradition, sustainability and well-being. Thus, the consumption of local seasonal products, the preparation of dishes following traditional recipes and respect for the biodiversity of the environment are the pillars of such a varied diet, recognised as one of the healthiest in the world. This ensures the conservation of the territory and the development of traditional activities characteristic of each community. The preservation of the Mediterranean diet faced with the challenges brought about by globalisation is, therefore, a key element for the environmental sustainability of the region.
The Mediterranean diet, understood as a way of life in continuous evolution through time, is a complex system of shared knowledge of cultural and food traditions, landscapes and know-how, a result of a particular environmental historical multifaceted geographic region: the Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean, there is spreading awareness of the social, cultural, health and economic dimension of “food”, shared by all Mediterranean people. Food is an identity for Mediterraneans, a time-place of dialogues and exchanges. Food is also the main good traded in the Mediterranean region. Food is a “total social fact”, and is an element of paramount importance concerning social life in the Mediterranean area and abroad. The Mediterranean diet is the expression of Mediterranean history made by its landscapes, ancient agricultural traditions and food acquisitions from other parts of the world. The Mediterranean diet is a result of the millennial history of the Mediterranean where traditions and creation are a result of crossing cultures in particular environmental conditions and the expression of a multi-faceted food universe.
The ancient Greek word diaita means equilibrium, lifestyle. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet is more than just a diet; it is a whole lifestyle pattern with social and physical activity playing an important role. It was continuously recreated in response to the environment in the diverse Mediterranean communities, surrounding them with a feeling of cultural identity and historically forming part of their way of life.
The Mediterranean diet represents the collective “memory” of different communities living in the Mediterranean. This is the peculiar reality of the Mediterranean region with different food cultures, lifestyles and environmental conditions
The Mediterranean diet is transmitted from generation to generation, and it is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their changing environment and history. This cultural food heritage is reproduced in many social and cultural contexts of the Mediterranean while sharing knowledge of the processes of production, preparation and consumption of food. These processes are part of an inheritance that favours rural sustainability and reproduces symbolisation systems, among which eating together is the foundation of social practices, rituals and festivities characterising the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet, as an expression of the different Mediterranean food cultures, is the set of practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, spaces and associated objects that the people of the Mediterranean have built, and historically recreated, in interaction with nature. It is a highly diversified heritage, which makes it impossible to think in terms of a single model for all countries. Food traditions vary from country to country in the Mediterranean basin and as a consequence the project must take stock of the different local realities and feed on the wealth of specific cultural and social traits. The Mediterranean diet expresses the intimate relationship between people and nature. Its shores and islands have been witness to dietetic restrictions, fasts or ritual food that today coexist and have been successively imposed by the three main monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Eating habits are connected with an anthropological dimension, which is complex and has ancient origins, that sees the relationship between people and food as dependent on environmental factors, current cultural customs and religious rules.
The Mediterranean diet represents the collective “memory” of different communities living in the Mediterranean. This is the peculiar reality of the Mediterranean region with different food cultures, lifestyles and environmental conditions. Throughout the years, the Mediterranean has been a crossroads of diverse people who have developed different civilizations, languages, religions, food traditions and practices. The Mediterranean landscape has been completely shaped by knowledge and secular agricultural practices of the population, reflecting its unique cultural diversity through its food and the rich biodiversity of its landscape.
The Mediterranean diet, recognised as being one of the healthiest diets in the world, through the variety of its food cultural heritage, is still little known from the point of view of the biodiversity and nutritional well-being associated with it. The Mediterranean is among the richest regions in biodiversity in the world and many of its native species are important ingredients in the preparation of century-old traditional food recipes. Owing to their peculiar nutritional value and taste, these resources contribute to making local food preparations diverse, attractive and healthy at the same time. Unfortunately, globalisation of agricultural markets and changes in lifestyles are having a profound impact on the conservation and use of natural resources, from landscapes to food biodiversity, leading to their irreplaceable loss at an unprecedented rate.
The agricultural biodiversity is decreasing: in the 20th century about 75% of the plant species, which means approximately 300,000 varieties, were lost all over the world. In Italy just 2,000 fruit tree varieties have survived out of the 8,000 recorded at the end of the 19th century. Today 1,500 fruit varieties are threatened. The biodiversity of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea and the high number of endemic species make the region a hot spot of global biodiversity. The loss of agricultural diversity occurring around the Mediterranean area is having negative repercussions on the food security and livelihood of populations living in the region. An exacerbation of the genetic erosion of agro-biodiversity due to globalisation trends and climate change is reducing the sustainability of local production systems and along with it our ability to safeguard the Mediterranean diet.
The strong erosion of biodiversity now observed is in the process of undermining the very basis of the Mediterranean diet. The diversity of Mediterranean food biodiversity is presently at risk of extinction because of economic changes, standardisation of lifestyles, loss of awareness and appreciation, particularly among younger generations about their own cultural food heritage. Despite its increasing popularity worldwide, the Mediterranean diet is today endangered in all countries of the Mediterranean region; the abandonment of traditional healthy habits and the emergence of new lifestyles associated with socioeconomic changes pose important threats to the preservation and transmission of the Mediterranean diet to future generations. The Mediterranean diet is a very important component of the cultural, social, territorial, environmental and gastronomic heritage as well as of the economy of many countries in the Mediterranean region. But, within the Union for the Mediterranean, similarly to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in the past, it is still not acknowledged and enhanced as a sustainable resource for achieving an effective sustainable development in the Mediterranean.
The diversity of Mediterranean food biodiversity is presently at risk of extinction because of economic changes, standardisation of lifestyles, loss of awareness and appreciation
This decline in the Mediterranean’s healthy diet patterns was already predicted. In the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development report, issued in 2005 by the United Nations Environment Programme, it was also pointed out that: “Mediterranean agricultural and rural models, which are at the origins of Mediterranean identity, are under increasing threat from the predominance of imported consumption patterns. This trend is illustrated in particular by the decline of the Mediterranean dietary model despite the recognised positive effects on health. The prospective scenario for the expected impacts of trade liberalisation, climate change and the lack of efficient rural policies offers a gloomy picture in some southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, with the prospect of aggravated regional imbalances, deeper ecological degradation and persistent or accrued social instability. (…) Create a conducive regional environment to help countries develop policies and efficient procedures for the labelling and quality certification of Mediterranean food products and to promote the Mediterranean diet.”
In the same year, 2005, at the 3rd Forum on Mediterranean Food Cultures held in the Sapienza University of Rome, the Rome Call for Action on Food in the Mediterranean was issued, which stressed the need to act together to revitalise local capacities towards the increasing erosion of the diversity of Mediterranean food culture heritage. The Call for Action also recommended reinforcing the attention to the new food habits of the young generations, who in the southern Mediterranean countries are the biggest majority of the population, with increased trends of being overweight and obese throughout Mediterranean countries.
The Mediterranean diet as it was described back in the late 1950s, based mainly on cereals, fruits, vegetables and frugality, is no longer the same. The present day Mediterranean lifestyle is characterised by a wide availability of food and an ever increasing state of inactivity, leading towards a situation of apparent psycho-physical well-being which frequently does not correspond to the real state of health. The typical eating habits of the Mediterranean populations have been progressively enriched with food of a high protein content, saturated fats and sugars to the point where they now exceed the necessary intake levels. We live, therefore, in an age of “apparent well-being” where the increase in life expectancy runs parallel to increased risk.
In 2009, the Mediterranean Diet Foundation and the Forum on Mediterranean Food Cultures activated a process of dialogue for achieving among the international Mediterranean diet scientific community a consensus position on a new revised updated and unpatented Mediterranean pyramid as well as on the Mediterranean diet as a model of a sustainable diet. This consensus position was reached in November 2009 at the 3rd International CIISCAM  Conference held in Parma, Italy, and further developed in March 2010 at the 8th International Congress on the Mediterranean Diet, held in Barcelona by the Mediterranean Diet Foundation.  This new Med Diet pyramid was conceived as a simplified main frame in order to be adapted to the different country specific variations related to the various geographical, socio-economic and cultural contexts of today’s contemporary Mediterranean lifestyle, with no USA copyright as it was made in 1994 for the first Mediterranean diet pyramid.
The new pyramid of the contemporary Mediterranean diet lifestyle took into consideration the evolution of society and highlights the basic importance of physical activity, of conviviality, of drinking water, and privileges the consumption of local seasonal food products. The Mediterranean diet was revised in the light of modernity and well-being, without leaving out the different cultural and religious traditions and different national identities. Main foods included in the common food basket are: an abundance of olive oil and olives, fruits, vegetables, cereals (mostly unrefined), legumes, nuts and fish, moderate amounts of dairy products (preferably cheese and yoghurt) and low quantities of meat and meat products. Wine in moderation is acceptable when it is not contradictory to religious or social norms. But the idiosyncrasy of the pattern is not only a list of foods (some traditional) but that it also refers to sustainability (mostly fresh, seasonal and locally grown products) as well as preparation techniques following traditional recipes and the form and context of eating them, which are also key components of the Mediterranean diet. The concepts of seasonality, of local products and of variety of colours for fruits and vegetables were introduced together with frugality, main meals, conviviality and physical activity. The Mediterranean diet is a model for sustainable diets, in which nutrition, local food production, biodiversity, culture and sustainability were strongly connected together, with a low impact for the environment. Biodiversity is one of the three pillars that hold firm the new revised pyramid of the Mediterranean diet. It is intimately linked with and highly complementary to the other two pillars: cultural diversity and environmental diversity.
The Mediterranean diet was revised in the light of modernity and well-being, without leaving out the different cultural and religious traditions and different national identities
In 2010, the request presented in 2008 by the Governments of Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco, for the inscription of the Mediterranean diet on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was approved with the following description: “The Mediterranean diet constitutes a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table, including the crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation and, particularly, consumption of food. The Mediterranean diet is characterised by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming in the Mediterranean communities of which Soria in Spain, Koroni in Greece, Cilento in Italy and Chefchaouen in Morocco are examples. Women play a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional gestures and celebrations, and the safeguarding of techniques.”
Now more than before, it is urgent to identify and to carry forward a set of safeguarding measures for the development of joint activities to reduce the increasingly rapid erosion of the Mediterranean diet and to promote its sustainable renaissance as an expression of the whole Mediterranean food culture system. Therefore, new attention now needs to be paid to the link between the Mediterranean diet and the environment in the Mediterranean area and, consequently, one of the priorities must be the development of the Mediterranean diet as a sustainable diet.
Sustainable diets are those “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.”  The notion of a sustainable diet would have been curious a few hundred years ago, when people obtained the majority of their foods from their ecosystems. Biodiversity was valued and utilised; ecosystems and agro-ecological zones produced the foods that they had produced for millennia. Traditional knowledge and practices ensured the conservation and sustainable use of food biodiversity within healthy ecosystems. Agriculture, diets and nutrition have changed so dramatically in recent decades that now the concept of a sustainable diet seems novel. The diversity of Mediterranean food cultures, expressed by the wide food variety of the Mediterranean diet, should be foreseen as an effective resource for the sustainable development of the Mediterranean.
Agriculture, diets and nutrition have changed so dramatically in recent decades that now the concept of a sustainable diet seems novel
In early 80s, the notion of “sustainable diets” started to be explored to recommend diets healthier for the environment as well as for consumers. With the food globalisation process and the increased industrialisation of agricultural systems with no attention to the sustainability of the agro-foods ecosystems, the concept of the sustainable diet was neglected for many years.
The safeguarding and enhancement of the Mediterranean diet should be linked to the needs of sustainable rural development, the preservation of agriculture in less-favoured and mountain areas and the multi-functional nature of agriculture. Activities should be developed aimed at rationalising the use of water resources for irrigation, through integrated soil and water management and the programme to combat desertification; activities, specific technical and socioeconomic aspects of production systems in areas that rely on rain-fed farming, looking in particular at the risks associated with soil erosion and desertification and the loss of biodiversity in agricultural and natural ecosystems across the Mediterranean region.
Heavy genetic erosion has taken place in the Mediterranean countries since then, affecting species and varieties that provide the very basis for a sustainable Mediterranean diet. Standardisation of cultivation practices, mechanisation, monoculture and other changes affecting traditional production systems across the region have reduced the spectrum of diversity used for preparing healthy and nutritious food recipes. At the same time, the cultural erosion resulting from new lifestyles is also affecting the diversity of food cultures that makes Mediterranean foods so diverse and traceable to local territories and traditions. Such a phenomenon is also undermining the identity of millions of people living in this area whose traditions are so intimately linked to food cultures. The abandonment of traditional healthy habits and the emergence of new lifestyles associated with socioeconomic changes pose important threats to the preservation and transmission of the Mediterranean diet to future generations.
The cultural erosion resulting from new lifestyles is also affecting the diversity of food cultures that makes Mediterranean foods so diverse and traceable to local territories and traditions
Therefore, the Mediterranean diet deserves and requires multiple and diverse scientific and cultural initiatives, focused on its preservation, promotion and transmission. It is urgent, as never before, to turn this negative trend back towards a sustainable Mediterranean food lifestyle, rooted in respect for the territory, in the sustainable management of natural resources, in the recognition and consumption of seasonal local products, and in the appreciation of the richness of local varieties and biodiversity.
The Mediterranean diet as the expression of the Mediterranean food cultures is a heritage whose differences are to be understood and safeguarded in a common denominator. This diversity and combination, in the different forms of local interpretation of a complex heritage, attests to a unicum based on common elements. Protecting this heritage means safeguarding local vegetable species, focusing on biodiversity, preserving orally handed down techniques today circulated through more formal information, and, above all, it means continuing to transmit millennial rhythms and symbolic contents. The urbanisation of society, integration of women into the labour market and retail development are profoundly modifying Mediterranean dietary behaviour. To ensure the safeguarding of the diversity of the Mediterranean food culture heritage is a critical base for the safeguarding of the Mediterranean diet, understood as a whole non-separable cultural system.
The diversity of Mediterranean food cultures, expressed by the wide food variety of the Mediterranean diet, should be recognised as a resource for a sustainable development to be safeguarded and enhanced, in both industrialised and developing countries, to achieve good health and nutritional well-being for all in the Mediterranean. It is necessary to refer more to a Mediterranean lifestyle of which the “diet” is only a part.
The current perception of the Mediterranean diet focuses principally on its functional health benefits, related to the consumption of a balanced quantity of different nutrients, distributed within a pyramid structure, instead of being associated more with the everyday Mediterranean lifestyle of eating and living, in which food has health, aesthetic, cultural, social and religious values − factors that should be perceived together for a nutritional well-being and educational renewal.
The global scenario of the complex reality of the Mediterranean food cultures, with their interdependent issues, requires interdisciplinary and intercultural rethinking on the development of new holistic ecosystem approaches connecting the nutritional well-being of the individual and the community with the sustainability of the Mediterranean diet. By educating and re-orienting the Mediterranean consumer in the direction of diversified food consumption habits, it should be possible to reverse the trend of the erosion of the Mediterranean food heritage. Placing the diversity of the Mediterranean food cultures at the basis of the Mediterranean diet once again means providing real recognition of our common “Mediterranean” identity, in order to actively face together and solve the complex problem linked to the erosion and the renaissance of the Mediterranean diet as well as the heritage of the Mediterranean food cultures. A common action is necessary on the renaissance of the Mediterranean diet; therefore, Mediterraneans must act together to revitalise their local capacities for the sustainability of their agro-food systems and chains.