UA Dean Calls for 'Decade of Nutrition'
The Mediterranean diet is full of healthful choices, and a four-part cooking series can help in understanding its benefits.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes and Susan McGinley, University Relations - Communications and UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Feb. 5, 2015

Even though the Mediterranean diet is traditionally seated in the sea region around the southern region of Europe, the northernmost tip of Africa and the Middle East, it can be adapted to arid lands — and research indicates an environmental benefit associated with adopting the diet.

During the fifth annual Research Frontiers in Nutritional Sciences Conference, recently held at the University of Arizona, researchers and practitioners shared current research about the Mediterranean diet and ways they are advocating for the preservation and broad-based incorporation of the eating pattern.

The conversion will continue at the UA this month with a four-part, hands-on cooking series, "The Many Faces of the Mediterranean Diet: Four Evenings." The series, which is open to the public, is offered by the Garden Kitchen, a partnership involving the UA Cooperative Extension and featuring the cuisines of Spain, France, Morocco and Italy. Information is available online

"It is time to step up the national conversation," Shane Burgess, dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said during the conference.

A growing body of research indicates that the Mediterranean diet, considered an eating pattern, can reduce chronic disease, protect against cognitive decline and also result in longer telomeres, which are the caps over DNA strands that protect chromosomes and serve as a biomarker of aging.

"We need to understand that our food, our culture and our society are so interconnected," Burgess said. "Untangling food issues is so difficult and it is such an emotional issue because it is part of our whole well-being.

"I would like to see the next decade be the decade of nutrition, where we can change the minds of people from thinking about sickness to thinking about health and wellness."

Presenters also noted that in addition to health benefits, the Mediterranean eating pattern also has an impact on biodiversity and the ecological environment.

"Food production is inevitably a driver of environmental pressures," said Dr. Lluís Serra-Majem, a professor of preventative medicine and public health and director of the Research Institute of Biomedical and Health Sciences at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain.

"Animal-based foods are by far the most land and energy intensive, compared to foods of vegetarian origin," Serra-Majem said.

By relying on local and organic food more often, the diet can encourage a decrease in the carbon footpring of a person or community. "The eating pattern presents a healthy and environmentally friendly model, which would have public health benefits and less ecological impact," Serra-Majem said.

For example, the Blue Zones project, as presented by Rudy Maxa, a Washington Post reporter and columnist, has revealed important implications of adopting more nutritious eating and healthier lifestyles. The project indicates that pockets of people studied who are living in communities in California, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece and Japan have marked improvements in longevity because they move naturally, carry an innate sense of purpose in their families and communities, eat a predominance of plant-based foods and generally do not overeat, among other things.

While the Mediterranean eating pattern appears place-specific, it can be adopted using locally grown products.

"There is no sea here, but Tucson has the same climate as the Mediterranean," said Cheralyn Schmidt, a senior program coordinator with Cooperative Extension, who led a cooking demonstration during the conference. 

Schmidt, who will be presenting during the forthcoming lecture series, and several other conference presenters from the Garden Kitchen program provided ideas on ways to adopt the Mediterranean diet in a drier climate:

  • Rely on locally raised fresh produce and other products, including bread, greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, olive oil, lamb and beef and also herbs such as rosemary, parsley, basil and oregano. Food co-ops and farmers' markets are some of the ideal locations for identifying local foods.
  • Remember that a high-to-moderate intake of plants and plant oil content is core to the eating pattern.
  • Learn how to make more food at home. That includes pasta noodles, pesto and salad dressings.
  • Significantly reduce the amount of dairy, red meat and refined sugars in the diet, and be sure to enjoy a balance of legumes, fruits, vegetables and mostly unrefined cereals.
  • When possible, rely on seasonal and organic foods.
  • Engage in appropriate physical activity.

"Arizona contributes to each area of the Mediterranean diet," said Julie Murphree, communications director for the Arizona Farm Bureau Association. "In Arizona, you can be planting and harvesting somewhere 12 months out of the year."

Murphree emphasized that Arizona is a leading state in the production of various types of citrus and lettuces, and also cauliflower, carrots, grapes, broccoli, spinach and cantaloupe. She noted that wine is one of the state's fastest-growing agricultural segments, and that Arizona is home to Hickman's, one of the largest family-owned egg ranches.

Arizona has a number of other nutritional and agricultural benefits that support Mediterranean diet, Murphree said. The state's aquaculture industry supports a sizable portion of tilapia, and dairy is the second-largest agricultural commodity in the state. 

Extra info


The Many Faces of the Mediterranean Diet


The Garden Kitchen, 2205 S. Fourth Ave.


Feb. 12 and 26; March 12 and 26; 5:30 to 8 p.m.

The public is invited to attend "The Many Faces of the Mediterranean Diet," an educational cooking series exploring the eating pattern. The cost is $40 per class, or $150 for the entire series.

  • Feb. 2: Cheralyn Schmidt will speak about Spain
  • Feb. 28: Louisa O'Meara and Jacqui Stork will discuss the diet in France
  • March 12: Erika Alvarez will share information about Morocco
  • March 26: Stacy Peercy will speak about Italy


Registration information is available online under "Health and Wellness." For more information, call 520-626-5161. 


Some of the conference presenters and participants, who provide educational materials, produce and other support to aid with adopting a Mediterranean eating pattern, are with organizations that include: 





Resources for the media

Susan McGinley

UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences