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The Mediterranean Diet Isn’t What It Used to Be

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Oct. 4, 2021 -- When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, some residents of Pompeii, Italy, 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 and what they ate. Their bones tell a story of how the Mediterranean diet has changed over time, according to new research.

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.

We are what we eat, and our bodies build new material using the protein we take in. Bones are in a constant state of breaking down and building up, and the proteins they contain will reflect what’s in our recent diet. In the recent study, researchers 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.

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 gender gap in their diets.

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 2,000 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.

The study’s approach, the authors wrote, might allow for other precise comparisons of past diets to present-day versions and inform our understanding of how changes in these diets affect human health.

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Science Advances: “High-Resolution Dietary Reconstruction of Victims of the 79 Ce Vesuvius Eruption at Herculaneum by Compound-Specific Isotope Analysis.”

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