The role of meat in the Mediterranean diet

Meat is recommended in moderate amounts and is fully part of the Mediterranean diet as it always had been for millennia.

The presence of meat in human food is demonstrated by the fossils found in all the archaeological sites, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic, showing that even the hominids were omnivores, alternating their diet of plant foods with meat consumption. The concomitant presence of finds of broken animal bones and sharp tools to cut the carcasses, however, does not say much about the supply of meat. It appears that Homo Habilis, as with Homo erectus, consumed both those coming from the carcasses of animals that were already dead (killed by other predators), and by those procured by group hunting. Nothing is known instead of the vegetable consumption of those times, because there are no “remains” to be subjected to chemical/physical analysis.

The arrival of Homo sapiens and his settling permanently in temperate areas, seems to have had as an initial result an increase in meat consumption to compensate for the periodic shortage of plant food in adverse seasons of autumn and winter. Later, with the constant use of fire to cook food and the phasing out of hunting in favour of agricultural harvesting practices, created the foundations for the “birth of agriculture and civilisation” and from the point of view of food consumption, the fundamentals of what we now call the “Mediterranean Diet”.

By choosing to practice agriculture to produce their own food men gradually changed not only their lifestyle, which from nomadic became stable, but also profoundly changed the natural environment in which they decided to settle. To create cultivated areas he practiced systematic deforestation, control and deviation of watercourses, levelling and fencing of the land, artificial seeding, collection and conservation of seeds obtained and ultimately the transformation of the seeds into food. All this work found its greatest expression in the production and consumption of a novel food, bread, which in nature does not exist and that symbolises the abandonment of the so called “wild” man.

If bread became a symbol of civilised human beings who no longer consumed only what nature gave him, but also what he had invented, even meat could no longer derive only from hunting, becoming the product of “choice”, from the domestication and selection of some animal species. The breeding of sheep, cattle and pigs, in fact, becomes itself a symbol of civilisation and detachment from the “wild” life; so much so that the men had to build fences and shelters for animals, protect them from wild predators, to ensure that they always had food and water available: in a word, they became farmers.

The sinatropia This “closeness” between humans and animals (sinatropia) posed, perhaps for the first time, the problem of “guilt” inevitably resulted by the killing of the animals, in particular the bovine called “Ox plougher”, considered a valuable help to mankind. The ritual sacrifices to the gods have been interpreted as a means to justify the violent acts against a sinanthropus animal, and the subsequent division and consumption of meat as a moment of sharing and social recognition. In fact, men were divided between “participants” and “outsiders” to the sacrificial feast, and subsequently the distribution of meat distinguished those who were entitled to the first and most abundant portion (princeps) and to those who shared the rest (populus).

From all this we can understand that if on one hand the consumption of meat in ancient Mediterranean cultures was scares and occasional, on the other an ideological and symbolic point of view was strongly marked: “Meat, an exceptional food, which implies the killing of the animal, is the food of important moments, related to the strengthening of the festive commensality among men and the establishment of a relationship between the human world and the gods”. Naturally in such a significant context, leads to the birth and identification of a movement rejecting the ritual of sacrifice and the consequent decrease in the consumption of meat. Among the first we can identify are the Orphic and Pythagorean movements which, in turn, applied strategies of cohesion and identity by refusing to participate in the sacrificial rites.

In the Roman world, from the Republican to the late imperial age, we see a gradual increase in the consumption of meat especially in the cities and among the upper classes. This can be justified in part with district procurement policies and in part with the progressive freedom from slaughter by the religious rituals, to be incorporated into a series of standards of “hygiene and protection of public health”, as one would say today.

The gradual emergence of Christianity also freed the consumption of meat from sacrificial rites, but retained (and sometimes strengthened) the use of celebrating the major religious holidays with meat banquets. In Italy the so-called “Mediterranean Diet” was challenged in its principles of identity (bread as the main food, then cereal baby foods, vegetables, dairy products and a little meat) since the onset of the Roman-Barbaric kingdoms (from the fifth century AD), which brought into vogue the cultural, economic and food values of the populations from northern Europe. These, while practicing agriculture (cultivating barley to produce strong drink), are represented as meat eaters, especially pork and/or hunted game.

The barbarian culture, which would become elaborated in the Italian medieval culture, considered meat as the most important source of strength and energy to man and in this logic it became the prerogative of the great warriors, the leaders and the powerful. Even the conversion of the Barbarians to Christianity in a sense strengthened the symbolic value of the meat, because the “penance” which obliged people to respect the fast days, when the consumption of meat was banned (Lents, Wednesday and Friday of each week), took on great importance and significance only if inserted in a highly carnivorous culture. The same consideration can be made about the food choices of the origins of monasticism (VVI century), who considered the abstention from eating meat an obligation for religious men and women who, in this way, marked the “difference in life style” between themselves and those who lived “in the world”.

From the rule that Leandro Sevilla wrote for his sister Fiorentina in 580 A.D. one reads:

“… Who has sufficient strength should abstain from meat. It is a hard condition, in fact, to feed the enemy against whom you fight and to feed one’s flesh in order to feel rebellious. / If the Virgin makes use of the same things as those living in the world, this suggests that she does what all women do in the world. / What can meat fed on meat do, if not abandoning to lust and become an ally to the miserable cruelty of lechery?” 

Even the medieval medical thinking believed that the consumption of meat was necessary to restore a “healthy body” and was common and widespread knowledge of which there are traces in the dietary rules such as the “Regimen Sanitatis”, but also in the monastic rules:

“… I do not dare neither forbid nor allow the eating of meat because of your weakness… Who has sufficient strength should abstain from meat …. Those in need of physical force should make use of meat; for example, those who work in the mines, fighting in war, who build tall buildings or those who labour hard in different jobs. The use of meat is capable of regenerating strength”. 

“… One never eats meat. / chickens or any other type of volatile are not be distributed in communities / they are to be obtained only for the sick and for those with delicate health”. “But allow the really weak to eat meat, so they may get better; as soon as they feel better, they should abstain from meat as before”.  

The period between the IX and XII centuries is the most prestigious for the consumption of meat, also representing the era in which almost the entire population (regardless of class) was able to gain access to this resource through an economy defined agricultural- forestry-pastoral, namely where agriculture was (almost entirely absorbed by the production of cereals and legumes) supported by breeding and by the exploitation of uncultivated areas where hunting was practiced to catch large prey (hunting by noble) as well as smaller mammals (by farmers and peasants).

The fact that almost everyone could eat meat, though, does not mean that this was the same for everyone: different “quality and quantity” in targeting various social classes signalled, referring to the studies of J. L. Flandrin, what has been called the meat statute, meaning by this term all the social, economic, political and cultural factors that meat consumption represented. If in fact from the ninth to the twelfth centuries warriors, nobles and rich ate meat from large mammals (cattle, bears, deer, fallow deer, wild boar), and in larger quantities, or at least at banquets show an abundance of meat, the lower classes ate chickens, geese, rabbits, hares, and especially pig that provided, with cured meats and sausages, meat reserves for the winter.

Even the religious, especially the most senior echelons of the monasteries and major dioceses, while respecting scrupulously the abstinence during fast days show impatience towards the prohibition of meat consumption. A fine example is what Peter Abelard writes in the twelfth century:

“If the same pontiffs, the leaders of the holy Church and the clerical communities can eat meat without sin, because they are not bound by any vote, who could be blamed for patronising women, especially if they bear a greater need of the rest? … We, therefore, considering both possibilities of men and their nature, do not forbid any food, but only excess. We therefore wanted to adopt a measure for the use of meat: not to eat it more than once a day, not to offer the same person several portions, nor to add other dishes, that it not to be allowed to eat more than three times a week, i.e. on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, even if it interposes holidays“. 

From the thirteenth century onwards there were a series of political and economic changes where the noblemen, owners of lands and forests, prohibit peasants and farmers access to forests and subsequently therefore had no longer a free and plentiful supply of meat. This led to the radicalisation of two opposing eating patterns: that of the countryside, which consumed very little meat, and that of the city, where all food (including meat) was always available, the only limit being economic wealth.

Gastronomy also became organised on the same basis, developing an urban and “bourgeois” model which focused on cooking meat (especially beef) as a symbol of wealth, refinement and sophistication, while rural gastronomy foresaw very few meat dishes, mainly pork, chicken and rabbit, and above all was characterised by the attention to the use of all the animal parts (muscles and viscera) and an abundance of recipes for “second processing” (from meatballs and meatloaf to “redone” meat), in order not to waste such a rare and much desired food.

The chronic shortage of meat among the Italian rural populations became a constant that lasted until the early twentieth century, even if the information received unfortunately disregards any qualitative / quantitative figures, relying mostly on narratives or dramatic writings from doctors and nurses.

With the birth of the unified Italian State (1861) and later with the establishment of the Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), we finally had objective data confirming the small amount of meat consumption (about 11 kg / year per person) but without differentiating the quantities between city dwellers and residents of the countryside.

That meat was still one of the most desired foods, can be seen especially from the testimony of Italians, who due to hunger and misery had to face the migratory adventure starting from Eighteen Eighties, involving Piedmont, Veneto, Calabria, Sicily, etc.. The destinations were mostly Argentina, United States, Brazil and the news they shared almost always showed amazement for the food consumption in the destination countries, particularly in the abundance of meat and the possibility to eat it every day if so desired (!) In a letter written in 1878 coming from Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) is stated: “… Food was plenty for everyone because we killed a cow a day, had enough soup and bread and plenty of coffee …”

A Venetian farmer in 1888 in Esperanza (Argentina) said:

“Here, from the richest to the poorest, all live on meat, bread and soup every day! » A farmer in Cuneo recalls in an interview: “My father was born in 1870. He left for adventure embarking for Argentina … The only thing that was not missing was meat, therefore they did not go hungry. In Argentina meat was like our cornmeal porridge here. They killed a calf and cooked it on the spit. They then cut off pieces of meat with a knife and ate”.  

Finally, even the labourers from Calabria that arrived in the United States were surprised by the “equality” of the eating habits, which consisted in the fact that everyone could have access to daily meat consumption:

“When you came home with that great steak, you know, as thick as this, with all the blood that we are not used to in Italy… And you eat… There is no jealousy in America. We all eat the same, all the same steak, all at the same table, all equal…”

In 1890 the results of the Inquiry on the hygienic and sanitary conditions of the workers of the land by Mario Panizza were published in Italy (a compendium of the more popular Enquiry Jacini-Bertani) and once again the constant food shortages in rural populations was stigmatised, with a strong focus on the lack of an adequate consumption of meat, which was limited to the religious feasts, weddings, baptisms and little else.

This situation continued until the first third of the twentieth century. What Ancel Keys saw in central and southern Italy at the end of the Second World War, was in fact, a chronic habit of not eating meat due less to a “lifestyle choice”, but more to the result of centuries of “chronic inability to gain access to the consumption of meat”.

The 1960s represented for Italy a period of great economic development, which enabled her country to finally defeat hunger and the areas of undernourishment. The consumer food model became widespread and meat, coveted for centuries, finally became available to everyone.

Eating meat was a kind of declaration of freedom from misery and poverty. Doctors and paediatricians continued to suggest the consumption of meat as a factor for improving the growth of children and teenagers. The daily ration of meat for military conscripts was 200 g (even today this is the daily ration as per OG), the meal canteens always included a meat dish, and throughout the following decade the “main course” in the Italian gastronomic tradition became almost exclusively meat based (steak, sliced, roasted, boiled, cutlet, escalope, …) making them forget, for a time, the gastronomic variety that traditional nutrition had developed over the centuries.

The attitude towards the consumption of meat from half way through the 1980s began to change: forgotten the initial enthusiasm, the fact that hunger had been reduced and that in Italy certain health disorders began to be linked to an excessive consumption of meat and animal fats triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the consumption of meat was considered one of the main risk factors of the so-called “diseases of well being”. This led to the elaboration of a new model of Mediterranean Diet that, taking the example of the gastronomic culture of the Mediterranean countries, proposed as a source of food: bread, pasta and the use of the rich heritage of vegetables, fruits and cheeses that characterises precisely the Mediterranean, bringing meat consumption to be the necessary complement for a balanced diet.

Silvana Chiesa – University of Parma



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Rule of Leonardo (580 d.C..)

Rule of Aureliano FOR VIRGINS (VI century)

Rule of Benedetto (X century)

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The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.