The Mediterranean Diet

Professor, students travel to Italy to study and explore benefits of the Mediterranean diet
by Tanya Horacek, Ph.D., R.D.
Professor of Nutrition
Department of Public Health, Food Studies and Nutrition

What is the Mediterranean diet and why do people eat this way? How many ways can we really define the Mediterranean diet, based upon regional and cultural differences? This year, we had a great group of 16 women and two men experience one of the most renowned cuisines in the world. Through class discussions, we investigated the historic, geographic, and socio-economic underpinnings of the Mediterranean diet. We critiqued the health benefits and the implications of following a Mediterranean diet. We discussed the current dietary habits of people surrounding the Mediterranean to determine just how closely the Mediterranean diet is being followed.

Once in Italy, we experienced the current Mediterranean diet from farm to table by exploring small artisan producers for cheese, olive oil and pasta. We explored the significance of local/regional production not only from a food system but also from a legislative and labeling perspective. We worked in the fields, shopped for the freshest ingredients and cooked authentic Italian meals.

Immediately upon arrival we were transported to the agriturismo La Ginestra. Here we did extensive walking tours, worked at the agriturismo in the vineyards and learned about beekeeping and making honey. We also made pizza using an antique grain wheat in a wood-fired oven. We visited a small demonstration sustainable garden in Montespertoli. We then spent the day cooking with our Italian chef friend Jacopo at his home. We made a fantastic meal of spinach ravioli, chicken cacciatore, costini and tiramisu. We went to Pisa for a quick look at the learning tower – then on to a 1.5 hour bike ride (cut back from 2.5 hours) in a national park. We visited Corzano and Paterno for a detailed look at the cheese making process and a tasting of their famous pecorini cheese. We visited a small organic vineyard- Podere Paglieri for a tour, lunch and olive oil tasting. Finally, before heading into Florence, we had a lesson and tour of small pasta factory – Pastaficio Fabbri in Strada in Chianti. In Florence, we toured the city and did a fantastic tourist tour “Taste of Florence,” stopping at 10 sites for lessons and a sampling. We shopped at the small farmer’s market Sant’ Ambroggio and cooked with Jacopo at the new kitchens at Villa Rosa. We had a guided tour of the Uffizi museum.

The students loved the trip and had this to say about it:

“I loved that we immersed ourselves in the homemade cooking process and that we got a sense of the community.”

“Every activity taught me something about Mediterranean food and culture especially in Italy.”

“I really enjoyed the farm aspect…I learned how society relies on the resources available and how the farmers pull it all together.”

Tanya M. Horacek Ph.D., R.D. led the class and trip. Dr. Horacek is a Professor in the department of Public Health, Food Studies and Nutrition at Falk College. She teaches upper level/graduate applied dietetics classes. Her current research involves the development and validation of a healthy campus environmental audit and randomized treatment control trials using a non-diet approach to weight management. She has a variety of other research projects include eating competence, green eating, participatory program planning, and the effectiveness of lifestyles-oriented nutrition counseling/education. She is passionate about helping students fit a study abroad experience into their program of study. She has broadened her area of study/teaching to include sustainability and a global cultural experience via the Mediterranean Food Culture class. She spent the Fall 2009 semester living and teaching in Florence and continues to study Italian.