But what is the traditional Mediterranean diet and how can it benefit our health?
Dr Anthony Mariani AM seeks to answer this question, among many others, in his new book, The Mediterranean Diet: Food, Science and Health.
Having spent his formative years in Tocco da Casauria, in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, Dr Mariani was born into a world where food was central to everything else.
Though his family migrated to Australia when he was seven years old, they brought with them a passion for food and an appreciation of its important role.
A practising physician and gastroenterologist, Dr Mariani went on to pursue that passion later on in life, through his profession.
In his past position as president of the Italian Medical Society of Victoria, and current role as a committee member, Dr Mariani has also written, broadcast and lectured on his field of expertise within the Italian and wider community.
He was involved in editing a bilingual book - in English and Italian - on preventive medicine, and around a decade ago, he was invited by the Italian Institute of Culture to lead a series of talks on the Mediterranean diet.
This experience, combined with patients who were increasingly curious about how they could prevent diseases such as fatty liver and bowel cancer, spurred Dr Mariani to begin compiling his own book.
“I could see that there was a big connection between preventive medicine and the Mediterranean diet,” he said.
“It’s been extensively studied and, time after time, research confirms that the Mediterranean diet is the way to go.”
Having written the book with the intention of advising people on disease prevention and good health, Dr Mariani hopes his work can help conquer obesity and the associated chronic diseases plaguing many Western countries.
Research indicates that 67 per cent of Australians are overweight, while 28 per cent are obese.
These numbers are staggering compared with Italy, where only 10 per cent of the population is considered obese.
Dr Mariani explains that this huge gap between the two countries has a lot to do with different diets.
“In Western countries, the diet consists largely of processed foods, saturated fats and sugar-added foods,” he said.
“In the traditional Mediterranean diet, there are more nuts and fish and less red meat.
“It also depends on how the animals are treated as to what happens to animal products...they are what they eat!”
In his book, Dr Mariani describes the traditional Mediterranean diet as an “anti-inflammatory diet”, due to key ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil, fish and native wild greens which are full of omega-3.
The author points towards evidence which shows that this diet can reduce the risk of asthma attacks and allergies, even to the extent that if an expectant mother consumes adequate amounts of omega-3 during her pregnancy, it can reduce the risk of her child suffering from these conditions.
The book also highlights how many of Dr Mariani’s fellow Italian migrants have lost the benefits of the Mediterranean diet after resettling in their new home, due to the “acculturation” and Westernisation of their diet.
“I was finding that a lot of Italian patients were changing their diet to include a lot more red meat and calories while being less active, and they were all suffering the consequences,” he said.
Another concept mentioned in the book is the “migrant paradox”, where migrants experience all the advantages of being in a Western country, such as a good education and increased opportunities, but suffer when they’re introduced to a new diet and different products.
So how can communities within Western countries like our own reap the benefits of an authentic Mediterranean diet?
According to Dr Mariani, it’s a matter of understanding the principles of this diet.
“You must use oils which are low in saturated fat, stay away from refined foods, and eat more white meat than red,” he stated.
Physical activity also plays an important role.
“The word diet comes from the Greek word ‘diaita’, which means lifestyle,” Dr Mariani said.
“It doesn’t just mean food and that’s the way we have to promote it, not just as food, but also exercise and physical activity.”
A true Mediterranean diet wouldn’t be complete without wine, but the consumption of this liquid gold has become excessive in Western societies.
Dr Mariani explains that wine is usually consumed with meals in the traditional Mediterranean diet, the way it should be enjoyed.
“If you drink wine with meals it metabolises in a different way than if you drink it by itself,” he said.
“If you consistently drink large amounts of wine separate from meals, it will cause oxidants, which promote all kinds of problems including cancer.”
Also delving into the history of the Mediterranean diet, even way back to when tomatoes hadn’t been introduced to the region, Dr Mariani’s book covers all you need to know about the diet and how you can incorporate it into your own lifestyle to be healthier and happier.
Aware that many people may not know where to begin when it comes to putting all of this information into practice, Dr Mariani has also been collaborating with fellow Italian migrants to compile a recipe book, entitled The Mediterranean Diet: Recipes from Mediterranean Kitchens, to make it easy to follow this diet at home.
But for now, the focus is on The Mediterranean Diet: Food, Science and Health, which will be launched by Dr Joseph Nastasi at an official event on Thursday, December 7, at Co.As.It.
For more information or to attend the launch, visit the Co.As.It. Museo Italiano’s website.