The Mediterranean Diet Isn't What It Used to Be

Emily Willingham

October 05, 2021

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, some residents of Pompeii sought shelter in stone vaults on nearby beaches, but to no avail: the lava flows still took their lives. But molten rock did not erase evidence of how they lived those lives. Their bones tell a story of how the Mediterranean diet has changed over time, even as a gender gap in diets has not.

In a study published in Science Advances, researchers describe using proteins from the bones of 17 of these victims to determine the food sources that nourished the people of Pompeii. They found that men ate more fish and women tended to eat more land animal products and locally grown fruits and vegetables. Fish was harder to access and thus more expensive, the authors say, suggesting that the higher social status of the men could explain the gendered food gap.

We are what we eat, and our bodies build new material using the building blocks of the protein we take in. Bones are in a constant state of breaking down and building up, so the proteins they contain will reflect what's in our recent diet. This research team compared features of protein content of the bones to those of fish, land animals, and food plants from the same time period to determine who was eating what at the time.

For the modern human, the findings suggest that the Mediterranean diet, often touted as most healthy for us, has changed a bit over the last 2000 years or so. Residents of the area at the time of the Vesuvius eruption probably ate a lot more fish than the diet includes today, but less in the way of grains.

Some things never change, though, and diet gendering still exists. The "women eat salads, men eat meat" assumptions and practices have been around for a long time. Some of us may recall the first ad campaigns pushing "Beef, it's what's for dinner," using such avatars of conventional masculinity as James Garner and Robert Mitchum to encourage beef consumption, presumably among people who wanted to be like them.

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