World’s ‘model diet’ under threat from lifestyle changes, globalisation

A study shows that people in the Mediterranean region are shying away from fruits and legumes and digging more into meat and dairy products

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Saturday 13 June 2015


The traditional dietary habit of the Mediterranean is undergoing a “transition”, with people in the region eating more meat and dairy products than plant-based food.

A recent report compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations food agency, and the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) shows the negative effects of diet change across the region, which was once considered the backbone of sustainability. 

The study says that three major factors—globalisation, food marketing and changing lifestyle—are the main drivers behind the changing consumption pattern in the Mediterranean.  

“The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and its effects against chronic diseases have been well established by the scientific community. It (the diet) has been scientifically proved to have markedly reduced the incidence of coronary heart diseases, cardio-vascular events and various types of cancer,” Bhaskar Goswami, policy specialist with FAO India told Down To Earth. 

Change in food habit 

According to Sandro Dernini, programme officer, sustainable food systems, FAO Rome, the Mediterranean diet is rich in plant foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, tree nuts, seeds and olives), with olive oil acting as the principal source of added fat. It also includes moderate consumption of fish seafood, eggs, poultry and dairy products (cheese and yoghurt), low consumption of red meat and a moderate intake of wine during meals.

This type of diet is both healthy and ecologically sustainable as the food production system requires lower energy inputs (dietary patterns having high meat consumption require more energy, water and land resources), Goswami said.  

“Countries ought to follow a diet based on locally-appropriate sustainable food production system. Any diet that is healthy and has lower environmental footprints should be followed.” 

Alarming situation

At present, the Mediterranean region is witnessing the co-existence of under-nutrition, along with obesity and food-related chronic diseases, the report says. The “transition” in dietary habits is having a negative impact on people’s health. 

While in the southern Mediterranean countries, people are suffering from under-nutrition as well as chronic nutrition-related diseases, in the northern Mediterranean, there is an increasing trend of obesity. 

The paper also shows a contrast in the dietary habits between northern and southern Mediterranean nations. Diet in the southern countries is mainly vegetarian. Cereals are the basic ingredients and pulses provide the main source of protein. However, in northern countries, meat forms a considerable part of food intake.  

“In many Mediterranean countries, eating habits are changing, following the introduction of Western-style dietary patterns,” the study says. 

Virtues of Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has been recognised as a healthy dietary habit by FAO because of its several virtues. It is “a diversified dietary pattern, and (if) widely adopted could not only prevent diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases, but also contribute to reduce the environmental impact on agriculture”, Dernini said. 

“Given the importance of food consumption ..., urgent steps must be taken in the Mediterranean region, as well in other regions, to promote dietary patterns which can drive food production towards more sustainable patterns,” he told Down To Earth in an email interview from Rome. 

Reasons to worry

FAO estimates that to satisfy the needs of a growing and richer population globally, food production will have to increase by 60 per cent towards 2050. 

“Rising incomes and urbanisation are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are being replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats,” Dernini added.

According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Mediterranean is one of the major regions of the world where global warming will threaten the environment and human activities in future. 

“The Mediterranean diet is an outstanding resource for sustainable development, as it contributes to promoting local production and consumption of food, encourages sustainable agriculture and safeguards the environment,” Goswami added. 

All main stakeholders in the agro-food sector in the Mediterranean region should cooperate towards increasing the sustainability of food consumption and production pattern to achieve food and nutrition security, he said.


Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health

Effects of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets: A randomized trial

Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet

Pacific islanders pay heavy price for abandoning traditional diet

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