Are you familiar with the food pyramid? And with the Mediterranean diet? I grew up in Italy with the myth of the Mediterranean diet. Not the original one but the version that italian mums adapt to make sure their children eat (a bit of) everything. In a single meal proteins/fats from meat, vitamins from veggies, and lots of carbs from pasta and bread.

Grewing up I started paying more attention to what I was eating. I realized my general well-being was to a great extent a result of my food habits. Moving to London I found out that the completeness of my italian meals was not as common as I thought. Having an unbalanced diet is incredibly easy: cooking for yourself can be boring, you may want to give in to laziness and indulge with ready-made meals or dinner out, from time to time. After several boxes of biscuits at dinner and countless sandwiches at lunch, it was time to return to the Mediterranean Food Pyramid. The true one, without excesses.

What to eat and how many times?

There are different types of food but they all share the same principle: at the base you find foods that should be eaten every day (fruit, vegetables, cereals), on the top those ones we’d better consume less frequently (dairy products, meats and desserts). The pyramid shown here is the american version, which differs from the italian one since it places cereals at the base instead of vegetables. This is because the pyramid is adapted to the american lifestyle, where the fiber intake is mainly guaranteed by the consumption of cereals (while in Italy vegetables play a primary role).

Food you can eat daily
  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • bread
  • pasta/rice/cereals
  • potato
Foods you shouldn’t eat daily
  • meat, max 5 per week (100 grams per portion)
  • fish, 2 per week
  • legumes, 2 per week (30 grams if dried, 100 if fresh)
  • cheese, 4 per week ( 50 grams if mature, 100 if fresh)
  • eggs, 2 per week

The water footprint of the food pyramid

There is another pyramid we should look at. Have you ever wondered about the environmental impact of food production? The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition has developed a “Double Pyramid: healthy food for people, sustainable for the planet”, which can guide our food choices on the basis of sustainability. In particular, the model relates the traditional food pyramid with the water consumption (water footprint).

The daily average consumption of water per person ranges from about 1500-2600 liters in case of vegetarian diet, to about 4000-5400 liters in case of a diet rich in meat. The two pyramids are reversed: foods recommended by the Mediterranean diet for a daily consumption, correspond to the vertex of the second pyramid, to foods that don’t need much water to be produced.

This is better understood through example: to produce, distribute, and consume a can of a tomatoes 13 liters of water are needed, 40 liters for a slice of bread, 500 liters per 100 grams of cheese, 2400 liters of water for a hamburger. Foods we are recommended to consume more frequenlty – such as fruits, vegetables and pasta – have less impact on the environment!

Although I don’t eat meat I’m not going here to advocate the vegetarian diet. I still think it is a a matter of personal choice. I like to stress out that food habits affect both our lives and our ecosystem. Some choices will provide both personal and inveronmental benefits such as increasing the consumption of cereals/veggies and accordingly reducing the meat consumption.  Small smart choices, healthy and eco-friendly.


Food pyramid image by Philippe Packu.