The Mediterranean Diet: From Ancel Keys to the Present, Part III

The Mediterranean Diet, which was discovered in the twentieth century but is in fact an ancient practice among Mediterranean populations, had three important early literary allies that introduced the Diet and lifestyle to the rest of Europe, the United States and Canada. The first of these three, all authored by Ancel and Margaret Keys, was entitled “Eat well and Stay well” and was a best seller in 1959. Ancel and Margaret Keys were well respected scholars from the University of Minnesota who wished to share their nutritional discoveries with the world. Their second book appeared in 1967, entitled “The Benevolent Bean”, and in it the authors focus on legumes, which are a central piece of the Mediterranean Diet. According to the Keys legumes are a kind of longevity-giving super food. The book argues that beans are ‘benevolent’ and healthy, and can be incorporated into all cultures and cuisines.

The third and perhaps most important book was published in 1975 and was entitled “How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way”. In this book, the Keys’ enthusiasm for the Mediterranean Diet is expanded beyond diet to focus on the balanced lifestyle typical of the Mediterranean. They had experienced this lifestyle first hand during a period of about 10 years while living in Campania in southern Italy and found it transformative. The book celebrates the Greek concept of ‘diaita’ which is a way of living that seeks nutritional balance while also emphasizing the importance of human relationships.

In 1963 the Keys built a house in the Cilento National Park. Cilento was an apt setting, because while much of Italy hurled towards an ‘economic miracle’, Cilento held onto its traditional methods of hilltop farming, cultivating vegetables and olive oil and fishing in the vast sea at its doorstep. It was here that Ancel and Margaret Keys set up a sort of colony with other scientists, calling it ‘Minnelea’ where ‘Minn’ comes from Minneapolis, their hometown, and ‘Elea’ from the Greek city in Campania where the philosophical school of Parmenides and Zeno was born. In addition to this, both ‘minn’ and ‘ele’ have similar roots meaning a source of water. Ancel and Margaret went to Cilento to absorb the culture and experience a lifestyle different from what they had until then known. They shared this lifestyle with the world, but above all they lived it fully and authentically together with their neighbors. Hence their convictions regarding how to live well: the secret ingredient to longevity and a healthy life is to share that life with others and cultivate relationships. Not surprisingly, the site of their 1963 ‘Minnelea’ has been maintained and is still a beautiful place that looks wide-eyed out towards the sea, a kind of thought oasis, where the Mediterranean Diet was tested and researched, but above all lived.