Nutritional deficiencies are a major global health concern. In many areas of the world, it is challenging to meet nutrient requirements by relying on locally available foods. The Mediterranean Diet (MD), acknowledged as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage since 2010, is characterized by a healthy nutritional model consisting mainly of olive oil (as source of unsaturated fats), nuts, legumes, vegetables, whole grain, fresh or dried fruit, a moderate amount of fish, as well as dairy, meat, and red wine1.
The MD has proven health benefits due to a remarkable nutritional profile, resulting in a reduced prevalence of cardiovascular, metabolic or neurodegenerative diseases and cancer2,3. It also represents a sustainable model of food production and consumption, thanks to the use of local products that can help preserve biodiversity and natural resources, as well as cultures or traditions. However, transferring the Mediterranean Diet to non-Mediterranean countries is a challenge4.
At the UNESCO Chair on Health Education and Sustainable Development at the University of Naples, we want to assess the possibility of promoting worldwide a healthy and sustainable dietary model based on the nutritional properties of MD, but implemented at the local level by using the food products available in the different areas of the world. ‘Planeterranean’ is what we call this new dietary model, which would be consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations in the Agenda 2030 and with the principles of a circular economy.
Many people in urban areas have a diet that is poor in quality and variety, with most of the energy intake coming from foods with high glycaemic index (i.e., white rice and potatoes), sugar-rich and fatty ultra-processed foods (i.e., ready-to-eat foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, pastries, chips, candies, etc.). These eating habits, which are increasingly frequent also in Mediterranean countries, are a major cause of the worldwide obesity epidemic (also for children), metabolic and cardiovascular diseases5. On the other hand, in every place of the world it is possible to find specific fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrain, and sources of unsaturated fats which present nutritional contents and characteristics similar to those provided by typical foods of the MD, likely to have also similar health benefits for populations living far from the Mediterranean area.
In Latin America, avocado, papaya, platanos (green bananas), andaçaí, berries represent good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), micronutrients, and polyphenols. Other cereals from Central Africa, i.e., tapioca/manioc and teff are thought to foster the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), as it occur for whole grain typical of MD. Moreover, quinoa is rich in proteins and provides essential amino acids, with limited fat content. Canadian canola oil, as well as pecans, contain monounsaturated fatty acids and phytosterols, and have shown a great LDL-cholesterol lowering effect. Such popular subtropical products as pinto beans and okra, rich in fibres and proteins, are also associated with reduced LDL-cholesterol levels and lower incidence of metabolic syndrome or cardiovascular events.
Sesame seeds and soy, traditionally used in Asia, contain bioactive compounds and antioxidant substances able to reduce hypertension, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, and inflammatory markers. Marine macroalgae (i.e. seaweeds and wakame) and spiruline are widely consumed in Eastern countries, representing a major source of complex polysaccharides, minerals, proteins, and vitamins, with anticancer, antiviral, antioxidant, antidiabetic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Australian macadamia nut, Davidson’s plum, native pepper berry, finger lime, and bush tomato – rich in flavonoids, vitamins and minerals – present antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and are already used as functional foods and nutraceuticals.
On this basis, we believe that the vegetables, fruits, cereals, and unsaturated fats available in different parts of the world may be combined to design evidence-based local nutritional paradigms. We aim to define multiple ‘nutritional pyramids’ – based on the foods available– presenting the same nutritional properties and health benefits (as well as environmental-friendly production processes) observed for Mediterranean Diet. We invite researchers from everywhere to contribute to this challenging activity, and to be involved in a specific research programme that will be launched through a dedicated UNESCO Chair platform under ‘Planeterranean’.