The History of the Mediterranean Diet

The Olive

As demonstrated by spontaneous olive tree fossils, olives were present in the Mediterranean region even before the human species appeared on the scene. It possessed a nutritional as well as a cultural value in the life of the Mediterranean peoples; one need only think of the connotation of the olive as a symbol of peace in the Holy Scripture and as a symbol of victory and of divine essence in the Magna Grecia culture.

The peoples from Syria and Crete began to cultivate the olive tree and it was later propagated by the Phoenicians from Africa to South Europe along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks popularized it and the Romans integrated it completely into their economic system. During the Roman hegemony the olive was cultivated in all of the conquered territories and the Romans developed instruments to press the olives and techniques to conserve the oil.

Olive oil was used as a cosmetic, as a medicine, and to illuminate, but it was primarily used for cooking purposes. Oil, in fact, became so important in the Mediterranean culture that the northern and western borders of the area where it was cultivated (from 30° to 45° parallel north) define “the Mediterranean region”.


Already 10,000 years ago grains were a fundamental part of the diet of the hunter-gatherers in the Mideast. Given the potential of grains and the good results of the first experiments in cultivating, villages were built and agriculture was developed. Today wheat is one of the most important cereals used in the modern diet.

Corn was discovered at the time of Columbus’ expeditions to the New World beginning in 1492, and it quickly became popular throughout the world. Thanks to its productivity and high content in protein, it has become one of the most important cultivations in several areas of the world and one of the primary energy sources for some of the poorest populations. Today, derivatives of wheat and corn such as bread and pasta are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.

Fruits and Vegetables

Both the tomato and the potato play an important role in the Mediterranean diet. Primitive varieties of the potato were cultivated already 5,000 years ago by populations living in the Andes in South America who improved its bitter taste and eliminated its toxicity. The potato was introduced to Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century. The tomato likewise originated in the Andes and arrived in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century following Columbus’ voyages.

Lemons and oranges are some of the most characteristic fruits of the Mediterranean diet. Lemons, which originated in India, were already present in Italy in the second century after Christ but large scale cultivations were popularized by the Arabs in the Mediterranean basin between 1100 and 1200. Originating in China, Indochina, and Southeast Asia, oranges became popular in the Mediterranean basin in ancient times and were introduced to the American continent by Christopher Columbus.

Almonds, another indispensable element in the Mediterranean diet, originated in Asia Minor but spread to the entire Mediterranean area in ancient times since it is a natural companion to olives in cultivations. Almonds and nuts were part of the diet of the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans; Charlemagne himself contributed to spreading the almond tree to all of Europe and to thus promoting their nutritional, health-promoting and healing properties.


Hippocrates as well as the Romans were aware of the healing power of wine which was considered a nutritional, antipyretic, laxative, and diuretic beverage as well as an ointment used to heal wounds. While its harmful effects have been recognized in modern times, a scientific article by Richard published in 1987 reported on the French paradox according to which the low death rates caused by coronary heart disease found in Toulouse (France) were due to the high intake of wine.

From the diet of the Mediterranean peoples to “the Mediterranean diet”

Lorenzo Piroddi, (Genoa 1911-1999) a nutritionist who studied the link between the diet and metabolic diseases, was the first to plan a diet for his patients that limited the intake of animal fats and showing a preference for vegetable fats. Piroddi’s studies on the healing potential of a diet can be considered the foundation of the Mediterranean diet as a pattern of diet habits in its own right.

But it was Ancel Keys, (Colorado Springs, 1904-2004) a biologist and physiologist who based his conclusions on his studies focusing on the dietary habits of people living in Southern Italy, was the first to present the phrase “Mediterranean diet” to the popular imagination investing it with a scientific and cultural meaning. Keys was, in particular, interested in the relationship between diet and cardiovascular diseases. Taking up residence in Pioppi (in the province of Salerno, region of Campania), he studied the beneficial effects of the local diet on the population’s health.

Keys’ studies demonstrated that the combination of diet habits of the local population delineated the Mediterranean diet whose characteristics are similar to the diets of other Mediterranean peoples. Keys concluded that those habits had a beneficial effect on health that other regional diets in the western world lacked.