The Mediterranean Diet: Considering the socio-cultural context for health promotion

I wanted to discuss a paper I had published last year titled The Mediterranean Diet: Socio-cultural Relevance for Contemporary Health Promotion (Click here for paper).

As the title suggests, it raises some of the issues of promoting a diet from a specific region in a different culture. The issues raised are relevant to any area of nutrition that involves getting people to change their diet.

The Mediterranean Diet is seen as a paradigm for healthy eating all over the world. You may well have seen biomedical studies that extol the virtues of following this eating pattern. Yet if you trawl through the scientific papers, it becomes increasingly clear that there is not a clear definition of what the diet actually is. There are a variety of ways of categorizing the Mediterranean Diet based on scoring systems that require the inclusion of certain foods like vegetables, fruit and olive oil but these scoring systems vary from study to study.

Regardless of the lack of uniformity in the scoring systems, if you were to ask your average person to follow a Mediterranean style diet – they’d be more likely to base this on foods they think people eat in the Mediterranean and there is the next big question. What is the Mediterranean Diet? The diet in Morocco is very different from that in Italy or Greece. You might base your idea of the Mediterranean diet on what they ate on holiday in Spain or an olive oil advert or one of the many cultural images promoted by the food industry.

Of course you might argue that in a nutritional scenario you would be very specific about the ‘Mediterranean’ foods you want people to eat – but research suggests that as soon as you give people a cultural reference they start to formulate their own ideas of what you mean. Communicating nutrition messages can be a complex task as most people have their own ideas on food and health based on the socio-cultural messages they assimilated over the years.

My main interest in terms of this diet model in fact, is not the foods within the diet but the socio-cultural messages that the model conveys. The model promotes conviviality – the pleasure of shared eating – as an integral part of this diet.  This probably conjures up images of large families eating leisurely lunches in olive groves…. yet is this how people in Mediterranean countries really eat? If it is can this way of eating be transferred to the UK? Can a food culture from one region be adopted in another?

I explore some of these issues in the paper and I’m attempting to answer some of the questions I raise in my doctoral research. So I’ll have plenty more on this topic but would be great to hear your views …

Surinder Phull – Senior Lecturer

University of West London

DISCLAIMER – this article is intended for information only and should not be considered to be nutritional advice. If you would like to change your diet please see a qualified registered practitioner for professional advice.

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting, I am looking forward to reading you final transcript, in particular as I am originally from the Mediterranean myself. It’s also concerning that although we are promoting the Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest, in my homeland for example, although it is the 3rd largest island in the Mediterranean and even though it still has the healthy food culture, it has also started to adopt more western food characteristics as well. I believe this is in part obviously due to modernisation but also due to more women working longer hours and being more career focused and spending less time in the home, unlike our grandmothers used to at the time.
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  2. Thank you, Surinder.
    I remember your presentation from the open forum last year and was pleased to see the article in print.
    My personal take on the subject is that in order to have a happy food-culture the food needs to be happy, full of colour and tastes.
    There is something about the very basic English foods (especially when it comes to feeding children) which goes the other direction. Lots of brown, white and yellow 
    At times it feels that all children’s food look the same and even taste the same.
    Maybe some of the Mediterranean spirit is exactly in those little details and the insistence of light, diverse and colourful foods. And on top of all – freshness.
    I remember from my childhood eating fresh salad every day, for example. And I can’t remember any brown foods or gravies at all.
    But like Lilly said, this is all changing. I think that the last decade brought something very different into the idea of the Mediterranean diet and it might not exist the way some people remember it.

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