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Friday, 22 August 2014

The Mediterranean Diet as a lifestyle (Η Μεσογειακή Δίαιτα ως τρόπος ζωής)

Here is an article I wrote that has just been published as a leaflet, for distribution at the second Mediterranean Diet Fair, which is being held next month at Tavira (Portugal) between the 5th and 7th of September, 2014. The leaflet is being produced by the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (my workplace) since it has been charged with the responsibility of the Coordination Point for the Mediterranean Diet until April 2015. You're getting a sneak preview of it. 
The Mediterranean Diet,
as inscribed by UNESCO
in the List of Intangible Heritage
Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania

The Mediterranean Diet

When talking about the Mediterranean Diet, emphasis is often placed on the actual food consumed by people who live in Mediterranean countries. This emphasis is perhaps misdirected: the Mediterranean Diet should be seen as a lifestyle, not a diet in its literal sense:

The Mediterranean Diet – derived from the Greek word díaita, way of life – is the set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions, ranging from the landscape to the table, which in the Mediterranean basin concerns the crops, harvesting, picking, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly sharing and consuming the cuisine. It is at the table that the spoken word plays a major role in describing, transmitting, enjoying and celebrating the element.” (UNESCO)

Therefore, safeguarding the Mediterranean Diet in modern times is not based on the safeguarding of specific recipes; it stems from the rapid breakdown of a changing social fabric which once helped to safeguard the continuity of a lifestyle passed on from one generation to another, making it difficult to pass on this knowledge to future generations. Without a community base, there would be no ‘Mediterranean diet’; it would simply be called 'Mediterranean food'. The food of the Mediterranean is also found in other parts of the world, and can easily be copied, but this is not true about the lifestyle - it is actually the way of life (δίαιτα) that UNESCO wants to protect as Intangible Heritage under the general title of the Mediterranean Diet. 


The origins of the phrase "Mediterranean Diet" are founded in Ancel Keys' well known 1960s study about the food habits of various Mediterranean people, which took place not too long after the devastation caused by World War II when many European countries were still underdeveloped, people lived on the farm, and there were many food shortages. Their food habits, which constitute the Mediterranean Diet, were regarded as healthy due to the low incidences of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high cholesterol. Additionally, high life-expectancy rates existed among populations who consumed a traditional Mediterranean diet. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet gained much recognition and worldwide interest since the period after the original study, as a model for healthful eating.

Seen in the old town of Hania, outside a taverna.

Ancel Keys' Mediterranean Diet pyramid is based on the healthy eating and lifestyle habits of the people living in southern Italy and the Greek islands, notably Crete, in the early 1960s.

Photo: Bread, olive oil and wine constituted the triptych of the Greek diet for many centuries, just as they do today.

A modern Greek meal is like taking a trip through Greece's history. Food names, cooking methods and basic ingredients have changed little over time. Bread, olive oil and wine have constituted the triptych of the Greek diet for many centuries, just as they do today. The first cookbook was written by the Greek food gourmet, Archestratos in 330 BC, which suggests that food and cooking has always been of great importance and significance in Greek society, which remains true even today.

The Mediterranean Diet as a lifestyle

Food events in the Mediterranean are an integral part of the Mediterranean people’s socialization; they are a perfect display of the Mediterranean lifestyle. They invariably involve a group of people who all play their own role in ensuring that a seasonal food event takes place according to plan. From the soil to the plate, each stage in the process is followed. Omitting any stage can sometimes be the cause of misunderstanding, although it is possible to alter a stage to suit the conditions. The alterations to such seasonal activities are how traditions are formed over time in each of the individual communities involved. The Mediterranean Diet is, therefore, not limited to terrain or particular food products: it is a shared understanding of the continuity of traditional values associated with eating patterns. Every different Mediterranean country has its own rituals and traditions associated with food, so there is no single diet. It is a coincidence that similar food items are often used, although they are combined in different ways according to many factors, such as one's locality, religion, available seasonal produce, customs, etc.

Many of the lifestyle events involved in the Mediterranean Diet are one-off occasions. They cannot be repeated due to their seasonal nature, and therefore their results will be lost for the year if they are not conducted accordingly. When things don't go to plan, there is always a Plan B to follow, so that the ritual's offering will not go wasted. The Mediterranean lifestyle revolves around the same seasonal activities that, at any given moment, are being done by different people at exactly the same time, and this is what is so special about the Mediterranean Diet: this is in fact the Intangible Heritage that UNESCO wants to protect under its label. It is not just the food, but the way of life that the food revolves around which needs to be protected.

The Mediterranean Diet in food security

In modern times, there is a great need to protect the Mediterranean Diet, due to the fact that it is now under threat from the forces of the globalisation and internationalisation of lifestyles. These movements cannot be prevented, nor is it desirable to stop them from taking place. But they are the main reason why the farming populations of Mediterranean countries are gradually being reduced, hence the reason why the Mediterranean people are losing contact with the land as they become more urbanised. These events are also accompanied by an increasingly homogenized and globalised food production system that disconnects food from its natural landscape.

It should therefore be seen as a vital goal to promote the Mediterranean Diet in its place of origin (i.e. in the countries of the Mediterranean basin) in the framework of a lifestyle. Our lives are becoming interconnected, and we are merging in many ways, but there are some things that will keep us distinct, and they are to be treasured, for that is where our sense of uniqueness comes from. The aim of the Mediterranean Diet newsletter, in conjunction with the Mediterranean Diet website, is to initiate discussion into how to maintain and preserve this unique identity.

In the process of being editeds

Intangible Heritage - UNESCO

Upon the completion of negotiation rounds headed by the Ministry of Rural Development and Food of the Hellenic Republic, Greece has been assigned the coordinating role of the Network of the seven Member Countries subscribed to the Mediterranean Diet in UNESCO's representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, from 1 May 2014 to 30 April 2015. At an intergovernmental meeting held in Agros, Cyprus, on 28-29 April 2014, which was attended by the National Committee of UNESCO, the proposal of the Ministry of Rural Development and Food of the Hellenic Republic to undertake the coordination of the Network was adopted. November 16 has been set as the Flagship Day to celebrate the Mediterranean Diet.

This effort of the Greek government and specifically the Ministries of Rural Development & Food, and Culture & Sport, regarding the need for a coordination tool, was launched in 2011, immediately after the recognition by UNESCO of the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage, following the submission of a portfolio to the UNESCO Committee. On the Greek side, Koroni in Messinia was chosen as the flagship of the Community, an area rich in agricultural products such as olive oil, olives, wine, raisins, figs, a large variety of vegetables, herbs and aromatic plants. The Member Countries and Emblematic Communities of the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage are Koroni (Greece), Brač and Hvar (Croatia), Agros (Cyprus),  Cilento (Italy), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Tavira  (Portugal) and Soria (Spain).

The Ministry has assigned, as the coordination point, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh/CIHEAM), which has the necessary scientific and research expertise to undertake joint actions and initiatives, both to preserve and disseminate the values of the Mediterranean Diet.

If the Mediterranean Diet is seen as just a pyramid of a suggested diet regime, then we are only looking at the food and not the lifestyle. The significance of the Mediterranean Diet includes so much more than just the food.

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