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The Eco-Friendly Mediterranean Diet

It’s not just good for your health, but also for that of the planet

When people talk about “healthy diets” they generally think of their own health, rather than that of the planet.

Earth Day is a useful reminder that we can’t be healthy if our environment is ailing, and that the food we eat is every bit as important to the wellbeing of Mother Earth as it is to our own.

There’s ample scientific proof that the Mediterranean Diet – a way of eating that’s been enjoyed  around the Mediterranean basin for thousands of years -- cuts our risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental decline and a whole host of degenerative diseases.

But the Mediterranean Diet also reduces the environmental impact of food production, transportation, storage and consumption. This is in large part because the Mediterranean Diet includes only modest amounts of animal foods, while plant-based foods – vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, herbs, spices, olive oil – make up the bulk of the diet.

Most foods eaten as part of the Mediterranean Diet are grown locally, thus reducing the environmental burden of long-distance transportation. Moreover, Mediterranean-Diet foods are adapted to the climatic and geographical conditions of the region in which they grow, reducing the need for extensive watering, fertilizing and pesticide use. For example, olive trees grow best in hot sun and dry soils, conditions that prevail in many areas around the Mediterranean.

Finally, most Mediterranean-diet meals are minimally processed and prepared from scratch by home cooks. This obviates the need for elaborate processing methods, hard-to-recycle packaging and costly commercial distribution.

In 2010, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization report on sustainability and biodiversity recommended the Mediterranean Diet as a model for a sustainable diet.

More recently, a team of Spanish researchers compared the environmental footprint of three eating patterns: the traditional Mediterranean Dietary Pattern (MDP), the modern-day Spanish Dietary Pattern (SDP) and the Western Dietary Pattern (WDP) practiced in the U.S.. In an article published in the journal Environmental Health they drew similar conclusions.

Getting modern-day Mediterraneans to actually eat their ancestral diets may require some reverse-engineering, however. “Unfortunately, current diets in Mediterranean countries are departing from the traditional MDP,” the article states.“This is due to the widespread dissemination of a Western-type culture, along with the globalization of food production and consumption which is related to the homogenization of food behaviors in the modern era.” The authors add:” The concepts of a sustainable diet and human ecology have been neglected in favor of intensification and industrialization of agricultural systems.”

Simply put: As cheap, processed convenience foods produced by Western food conglomerates invade traditional societies, people abandon the dietary patterns of their ancestors and embrace “modernity.”

Little do these folks realize that the delicious, convenient and cheap processed meals they now enjoy aren't only less nutritious than their traditional fare, but also more expensive, both through the healthcare costs arising from obesity and diabetes, and through the environmental cost of "Western" diets. (This isn't limited to the Mediterranean region; this chilling documentary shows how Western junk-food producers are fueling obesity and disease in Mexico, Brazil, China and India.) 

The authors of the Spanish study compared a typical diet based on the “New Mediterranean Food Pyramid” (defined in 2011 and pictured here) with Spanish government data on actual food consumption patterns in Spain, and U.S. data supplied by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Environmental cost estimates were based on the impact of each of these dietary patterns on energy consumption, agricultural land use, water consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The MDP showed the lowest footprint in all the environmental pressure points studied, whereas the Western dietary pattern showed the highest. According to the Spanish paper, the WDP requires four times more land, two-and-a-half times more energy and nearly twice as much water. In terms of environmental pollutants, the Western dietary produces greenhouse gas emissions that are a whopping six times higher than the Mediterranean dietary pattern. (See study for breakdown.)

The SDP fell somewhere in-between, but as the authors point out, returning to a more traditional Mediterranean diet (which was practised there until about 50 years ago!) could enable Spain to reduce its GHG emissions by 72%, its agricultural land use by 58%, its energy consumption by 52% and its water consumption by 33%.

In the three dietary patterns studied, the production of animal foods – dairy and meat – had the greatest environmental impact, the study found. Because the Spanish and Western diets contain more animal foods than the Mediterranean, they present significantly higher footprint values.

Of course, this study is merely a snapshot of the existing situation and doesn't attempt to predict how shifts in production methods might affect the environmental cost of agriculture.

For instance, more extensive agricultural practices involving pasture-feeding and a reduced use of fertilizers, water and fossil fuels are probably less environmentally damaging than the intensive meat, poultry and fish farming practices employed by modern food producers, and which make up the data underlying the WDP cost estimates.(Indeed, some argue that extensive pasture-based animal farming may actually benefit the environment.)

This suggests that we don't have to become vegans to protect our environment. Indeed, some studies (e.g. this one and this one) have concluded that even radical shifts in dietary patterns -- for example, a large-scale shift to veganism -- would bring about only small environmental benefits.

It does, however, call for more intelligent production methods and less reliance on commoditized, mass-produced convenience fare.

While eating a Mediterranean Diet can help lower the environmental impact of food production, consumers play only a small part in the overall picture. Decisive change can only take place if the agro-alimentary sector – food producers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs and politicians – agree to shift to a more sustainable model of food production, with an emphasis on locally grown, seasonal, minimally processed foods.

What can we consumers do to move this process forward? For one, we can stop buying processed junk and eating in fast-food restaurants. Next, we can start shopping at farmers’ markets, sign up for Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSAs), grow our own food and cook it from scratch, just like Mediterraneans have done for thousands of years.

In this way, we can hope to reclaim our plates, our health and that of our planet, step by modest step.

(c) Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nutrition coach and cookbook writer specializing in the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet . She offers Mediterranean diet coaching (online and in-person) and publishes Modern Mediterranean Meal Plans, a recipe and meal-planning service for busy people wishing to "Mediterraneanize" their diets. For more information about her work, please visit her website, www.modernmediterranean.com.    

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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