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The Food Pyramid on the left is based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which has been explicitly cited by the FAO as an exemplary Sustainable Diet and whose nutritional value has been recognized since the middle of the twentieth century. The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, unrefined grain cereals, with some fish and limited amounts of red meat and saturated fats. Many studies have consistently confirmed that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet can lead to tangible health benefits, including a reduction in the overall mortality rate and a reduced incidence of cardiovascular diseases, metabolic conditions, and certain oncological pathologies. The Mediterranean diet has frequently been represented in pyramid form. The largest part of the pyramid, the base, shows how a well-balanced diet should be primarily based on the consumption of plant foods, while the apex of the pyramid, its smallest part, indicates the foods, which should be consumed more restrictively. After more than 50 years of research, in 2013 UNESCO has recognized the Mediterranean diet as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Double Pyramid

The Environmental Pyramid reclassifies food in terms of the relative magnitude of its environmental impact; thus producing an upside-down pyramid with the most environmentally damaging foods represented at the top, and largely mirroring the order of foods in the adjacent Food Pyramid. The Double Pyramid communicates the inverse relationship between nutritionally recommended foods and their environmental impacts, that is, the foods that from a nutritional point of view have the higher recommended consumption levels are also those with lower environmental impact; foods with lower recommended consumption levels are those with higher environmental impact.

Methods and Data Sources

The Food Pyramid provides a summary of the various internationally produced guidelines regarding the Mediterranean diet. It arranges food according to the relative amount in which they should be consumed, while adhering to the principles of the Mediterranean diet: thus fruit, vegetables, and cereals are found in the bottom half of the pyramid, while red meat, sugars, and fats are at the top. The key message conveyed by the Food Pyramid is that our diet should be based mainly on foods of plant origin, as they are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, complex carbohydrates, water, and plant proteins, while consumption of the foods residing toward the top of the pyramid should be minimal, being high in saturated fats and simple sugars. The recommended daily intake for each food type was obtained from the “Guidelines for a Healthy Italian Diet”, a document published by the Italian Center for Research on Foods and Nutrition.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology was used to generate an estimate of the environmental impact of each food type considered. LCA is an objective technique for assessing the energy consumption and environmental load of a process (which could be an activity or a service), taking into account the whole production chain. The results were communicated through three different environmental indicators:

  • Carbon footprint, which quantifies the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change in terms of amount of CO2 equivalents;
  • Water footprint (or virtual water content) – calculated as the total volume of freshwater consumed to produce the specific type of food;
  • Ecological footprint – a composite indicator (employing conversion factors and specific equivalencies) that measures the anthropogenic impact by considering the different ways in which environmental resources are used. It is measured in terms of global hectares or square meters and is calculated as the sum of all the cropland, grazing land, forest, and fishing grounds required to (i) produce the food and energy required for human activities; (ii) absorb all wastes emitted; and (iii) provide sufficient space for infrastructure.
Data were obtained from publically available databanks and scientific research studies and collated into a specific database. More than 1,200 data were assembled using more than 250 sources. The values obtained for each of the three environmental indicators refer to 1 kg (or liter) of food. The results for each of the environmental indicators considered are presented in the form separate environmental pyramids. However, in order to provide a more effective communications tool, only the Ecological Footprint was used as the reference index when creating the Environmental Pyramid. The Ecological Footprint was chosen because the unit of measure is easier to visualize and understand compared to those of the other indicators. Moreover, it considers several environmental impact factors simultaneously.

For more information on the database and data analysis please check the Double Pyramid technical paper available here.

The Double Pyramid Model has been presented at several Scientific International Conferences and appeared in several academic journals and books. Among Others in:

Eating Planet Book The Water We Eat Book Frontiers in Nutrition Journal
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