The Mediterranean Diet Isn’t What It Used to Be

October 4, 2021 – When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, some residents of Pompeii, Italy, took refuge in stone cellars on nearby beaches, but to no avail: lava flows still took their lives. But the molten rock hasn’t erased evidence of how they lived and what they ate. Their bones tell the story of how the Mediterranean diet has changed over time, according to new research.

In a study published in science progressIn this study, researchers describe the use of proteins from the bones of 17 of these victims to determine the food sources that nourished the inhabitants of Pompeii.

We are what we eat, and our bodies build new matter using the protein we eat. Bones are in a constant state of breaking down and accumulating, and the proteins they contain will reflect what’s in our modern diet. In the latest study, researchers compared features of the protein content in the bones with those of fish, wild animals and food plants from the same time period to determine who was eating and what at that time.

They found that men ate more fish and women tended to eat more wild animal products and locally grown fruits and vegetables. The authors say that access to fish was more difficult and therefore more expensive, suggesting that men’s higher social standing could explain the gender gap in their diets.

For modern humans, the findings suggest that the Mediterranean diet, often touted as the healthiest for us, has changed little over the course of 2,000 years or so. Probably, the inhabitants of the region at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius ate a lot more fish than what is included in the diet today, but less grain.

The authors write that the study’s approach may allow for further accurate comparisons of past diets with current versions and inform our understanding of how changes in these diets affect human health.

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science progress: “Reconstruction of the high-resolution diet of victims of the eruption of Vesuvius 79 at Herculaneum by isotope analysis of the compound.”


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