They say you are what you eat, but in reality, your diet will have much more impact on what is likely to become of you in the future.
Genetics account for less than 20 per cent of a healthy life expectancy, leaving factors like diet and lifestyle making up the remaining 80 per cent. Food choices, then, can be cutting short your “health span” without you even realising it – until it is too late.
There may not be a single diet that can prevent disease, but evidence suggests there is at least one that will help increase healthy life expectancy and reduce the threat of infections, including Covid-19.
A decade after UNESCO recognised the intangible benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the importance of food in minimising health vulnerabilities is once again under the spotlight as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Certain health issues, often linked to diet and nutrition, increase the likelihood of dying from viruses like Covid-19, and across the US, around 90 per cent of the population has at least one chronic, degenerative disease or condition.
At the same time, the average consumer has reduced their intake of omega 3, polyphenols and vitamin D, which have anti-inflammatory qualities that influence immune responses and help prevent conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and age-related diseases. These same benefits are also emerging as qualities likely to protect against the severe progression of viral infections like Covid-19.
Faced with the declining health span of populations across high-income countries, the Mediterranean diet takes on renewed value with its consistent balance of health-promoting olive oils, cereals, fruit and vegetables, and a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat.
In the wake of the pandemic, the world has an opportunity to reset the food system to promote better health among the global population, and in doing so, build resilience against future disease outbreaks.
Public health agencies should be working with food producers, chefs and the hospitality sector to promote the Mediterranean diet and raise awareness of its long-term health benefits.
But policymakers and public authorities should also recognise that the Mediterranean diet goes beyond consumption alone, and represents an entire food culture that factors in both planetary and environmental health.
European food systems have produced a culture of meal-sharing as well as festivities and occasions that promote conviviality, offering benefits for mental health.
The Mediterranean diet also includes a localised approach to food production and preparation, taking into account factors like soil conditions, biodiversity and seasonal variation at a local level.
This means the guidelines for a healthy diet are generally consistent with those for an environmentally sustainable diet, as represented by the double food and environmental pyramid model developed by the Barilla Foundation.
On the other hand, scaling the average American diet to the entire population would require four planets to sustain it.
Adopting the principles of a Mediterranean diet, including prioritising fresh, local or seasonal ingredients and reducing overconsumption, would have a multiplier effect, benefitting both people and planet.
With 2021 shaping up to be a milestone year for transforming food systems for the future, Southern Europe offers vital lessons.
Scientific evidence is constantly evolving but time and again, it points to the manifold benefits of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats and fish.
With so much renewed focus on the future health and wellbeing of the planet, we have the perfect opportunity to embrace the entire Mediterranean food system for nutrition, health and sustainability.