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The Mediterranean Diet

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The Mediterranean diet is a modern nutritional recommendation originally inspired by the dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy and Spain in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The principal aspects of this diet include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt) moderate wine consumption and low consumption of non-fish meat products.

There is tentative evidence that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of heart disease and early death. Olive oil may be the main health-promoting component of the diet. There is preliminary evidence that regular consumption of olive oil may lower risk of all-cause mortality, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration and several chronic diseases.

Although there are many different “Mediterranean diets” among different countries and populations of the Mediterranean basin, because of ethnical, cultural, economical and religious diversities, the distinct Mediterranean diets generally include the same key components, in addition to regular physical activity. High intakes of extra virgin olive oil (as the principal source of fat), vegetables (including leafy green vegetables), fresh fruits (consumed as desserts or snacks) cereals (mostly wholegrains) nuts and legumes. Moderate intakes of fish (especially marine blue species) seafood, poultry, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt) and red wine (with the exception of Muslim populations). Low intakes of eggs, red meat, processed meat and sweets. Total fat in this diet is 25% to 35% of calories, with saturated fat at 8% or less of calories.

In Northern Italy lard and butter are commonly used in cooking, and olive oil is reserved for dressing salads and cooked vegetables. In both North Africa and the Middle East, sheep's tail fat and rendered butter (samna) are traditional staple fats.

Mediterranean cuisine is the food from the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and its preparation. This geographical area broadly follows the distribution of the olive tree, which provides one of the most distinctive features of the region's cooking, olive oil. Although this region spans a wide variety of cultures with distinct cuisines, the historical connections of the region, as well as the impact of the Mediterranean Sea on the region's climate and economy, mean that there are common elements in these cuisines, which include Italian, Levantine, Maghrebi, Ottoman, Provençal (French) and Spanish cuisines.

The region's food came to be seen as a more or less unified cuisine following the cookery writer Elizabeth David's book, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950). Other writers, such as the Tunisian historian Mohamed Yassine Essid, have agreed with David, defining the three core elements of the cuisine as the olive, wheat, and the grape, yielding oil, bread, pasta and wine, respectively.

The cooking of the area is not to be confused with the Mediterranean diet, made popular because of the apparent health benefits of a diet rich in olive oil, wheat and other grains, fruits, vegetables, and a certain amount of seafood, but low in meat and dairy products. Mediterranean cuisine encompasses the ways that these and other ingredients, including meat, are dealt with in the kitchen, whether they are health giving or not.

In 2013, UNESCO added the Mediterranean diet to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of Italy (promoter) Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia.

The concept of a Mediterranean diet was developed to reflect "food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece and southern Italy in the early 1960’s". Although it was first publicised in 1975 by the American biologist Ancel Keys and chemist Margaret Keys (his wife and collaborator) the Mediterranean diet failed to gain widespread recognition until the 1990’s. Objective data showing that Mediterranean diet is healthful originated from results of epidemiological studies in Naples and Madrid confirmed later by the Seven Countries Study, with first publication in 1970, and a book-length report in 1980. The most commonly understood version of the Mediterranean diet was presented, among others, by Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health from the mid 1990’s on.

The Mediterranean diet is based on what from the point of view of mainstream nutrition is considered a paradox: although the people living in Mediterranean countries tend to consume relatively high amounts of fat, they have far lower rates of cardiovascular disease than in countries like the United States, where similar levels of fat consumption are found. A parallel phenomenon is known as the French Paradox. A diet rich in salads was promoted in England during the early Renaissance period by Giacomo Castelvetro in A Brief Account of the Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy.