The merits of the Mediterranean diet have been lauded endlessly over the past couple of decades. In addition, millions of dollars in research have been spent poring over the intricacies of the diet. Of primary concern in these studies, is this dietary discipline’s capability to ward off chronic illness like heart disease. Looking past the delightful gastronomical tastiness of these foods, there’s a lot to be learned about this amazing eating tradition. For those in search of the secrets of the world’s healthiest food tradition, this story may hold some surprises.
Most of the stories you will read on the Mediterranean diet dish out the facts and figures, or they spoon-feed you the mouthwatering goodness of ingredients like virgin olive oil, fresh fruits, nuts, and green vegetables. We have all learned about the wonderful culinary delight the diet delivers to our tables, and almost everyone knows that people in southern Europe suffer fewer heart attacks per capita than Americans do. But not so many culinary enthusiasts realize the core of this healthy eating regime is Cretan.
A mountain of studies into heart disease risk factors and markers for other diseases like diabetes represent information overload for most people. So, digging deep to find out the origins of dietary perfection are not something consumers are inclined to do. Most people are content to embrace “would be” miracle recipes that are supposed to be authentic Greek, Spanish, or Italian. However, to get the full benefits of this eating regimen it’s crucial to understand the origins of this diet. Interestingly, it was not until the 1990s that the wondrous cures of the Cretan diet re-surfaced from a wealth of medical research. Looking back even farther, we see Crete in the middle of the 20th century the healthy choice central of gastronomy.
The most extensive scientific research of the Mediterranean diet ever undertake, the PREDIMED study made all the food headlines during and since the 5 years the testing went on. Even though some experts question whether or not the randomization of the 7447 individuals who took part, the results were unquestionably significant. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of combined heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease was reduced by between 20% and 30% for test subjects on selected variants of the diet.
Another study within the PREDIMED research reveals that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 52%. Other studies, such as the Lion Diet Heart research done in the early 2000s, show even more stunning health benefits. However, none of the most publicized studies deal with other facets beyond the reduction of cardiovascular events by subjects eating a diet rich in alpha-linolenic acids (the Mediterranean diet).
Since moving to Crete I’ve discovered first hand how beneficial the Mediterranean dietary tradition is. Even so, I’ll admit that what I “learned” from growing up in the southern U.S. seems to be contradictory for dining on massive quantities of foods high in fat. Like everyone else, I’ve been indoctrinated that diets low in fat are the ones that save lives. Then again, we all thought margarine was healthy too, but lamb chops and liters of olive oil? As it turns out, our grandparents were closer to being right healthy food-wise.
Researching just how “wrong” we’ve been these last decades, I ran across the so-called Seven Countries Study from 1958 to 1970, by the noted professor of physiology, Ancel Keys, Ph.D. As it turns out, Keys was also interested in the relationship of nutrition to health, and disease, in particular, the incidence of risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Keys and his colleagues were the first researchers to conduct widescale studies that examined the links between lifestyle, diet, and rates of heart attack and stroke in contrasting populations. Keys’ findings were stunning then, and remind us of what we lost with our more “modern” ideas of nutrition.
One thing the Seven Countries Study revealed was the low correspondence of heart disease to smoking in three of the countries observed. In Japan, Greece, and Italy smoking turned out to be a minor risk factor compared to the United States and other subject countries. It was these and the many other extraordinary factors from these countries that eventually formed the foundation of the dietary recommendations now popularized as the Mediterranean diet. However, an unexpected discovery by Keys and his associates leads us to the Holy Grail of dietary wisdom.
Keys and his team of researchers studied subjects in 1950s Crete to discover what you might call “the core” of the healthy Mediterranean eating regime. Back then, as is the case in some places today, the people of rural Crete consume significant amounts of olive oil, olives, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. On Crete, it’s important to note the consumption of wild greens with almost every meal, as well as the moderate amount of wine, cheese, meat, milk, and eggs.
In the Seven Countries Study, the people of Crete suffered the lowest incidence of all populations observed. Furthermore, over the 30 years of the study of subjects from 40 to 60 years old almost all of them had passed away by the early 1990s when the research ended. All, that is, except the subjects from Crete. Even as late as 2004, of the study subjects from Crete, were still going strong. This was true even though the Cretan brand of the Mediterranean diet is made up of more fat than almost any other population surveyed (37+%). One factor the researchers found, the high incidence of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in Cretan food products, resulted in typically unhealthy foods like meat and egg products to be much higher in omega-3 fatty acids. As it turns out, the “secret” to the Cretan diet is the balance. And it is this balance that cannot be fully reproduced outside the boundaries of this amazing island.
Go Barefoot, Eat Right, Live Forever
My friend Lambros Papoutsakh is an amazing man. The owner of the Aravanes Traditional Tavern, which you see some images from, he’s one of those people you expect to live forever. Timeless – vibrant – strong as a mountain lion, he’s a fine example for his amazing family, and for all those seeking the real benefits of the Cretan way of life. We met Lambros, his daughters Maria and Eleftheria, their husbands Manolis and Tito on a Crete Urban Adventures trip with our pal Rebecca Skevaki.
Over the years we’ve learned so much up in Thronos in the Amari Valley. First and foremost, the valley where the god Zeus grew up, it’s Philoxenia central for anyone wanting a taste of the real Crete. From a gastronomy standpoint, Aravanes and Lambros’ operation is like “down home on the farm” if you are American. Organically grown and/or locally sourced everything goes into each perfectly prepared meal there. But what you might call “the final ingredient” of traditional Crete is the zest for life these people share. I never tire of telling about a day and night in nearby Monastiraki when Lambros danced, feasted, raised his glass with “seegeea”, for hours, and walked barefoot back home at breakfast the next day. Maybe I should mention, Lambros is 73. However, even though he is certainly one in a few billion, he is also typical of Cretan patriarchs who head large families dedicated to one another and to tradition.
Some Missing Links
For years experts have wondered why the incidence of heart disease in Japan, the country with the lowest intake of fats, was higher than the incidence in Crete. In the 1970s, nutrition scientists determined that countries like Finland suffered more heart disease because of the very high intakes of both total and saturated fat. It was not until the 1980s when researchers explained why the high total-fat diet in Crete was more protective against CVD than a low total-fat diet in Japan.
The follow-up science revealed that the rural Cretan diet contained omega-3 fatty acids and/or ALA, and that the Cretans consumed the right amounts in every meal. In fact, the aforementioned Lion Diet Heart study affirmed that ALA is of primary importance in preventing heart disease. Of course, there is conflicting research, but ALA does help us pin down the world’s healthiest eating recipe. A quote from a 2007 report by Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE in Today’s Dietician gives us the good and bad news:
“The abundance of antioxidants and ALA from wild plants; the high selenium content of the soil; the low saturated fat but high omega-3 fatty acid content of meats and other products from pasture-fed animals; low intakes of trans fatty acids; and the substantial quantities of fish consumed daily.”
The good news is that people anywhere can emulate the world’s healthiest diet copying the basic features of a Cretan diet. We can plant more wild herbs, and we can better choose grass-fed beef and free-range chicken and eggs while integrating more olive oil, fish, and wine into our diets. The bad news is, the real Cretan diet cannot be reproduced. Let’s face it, not everyone in America is ready to go out searching for wild greens, and product labeling is often not all it’s cracked up to be. Even if you do decide to wander your nearby wilderness for ALA infused plants to cook, you cannot reproduce the Cretan soil and the climate.
These are other factors researchers have pinpointed in studying the Cretan diet. Finally, in the U.S. the cost of eating healthy is often prohibitive, while on Crete and in other southern European regions, returning to nature is a very short trip. However, nothing stands in the way of you trying your best to achieve healthy diet perfection, after all, grandma and grandpa weren’t far off back on the farm in the old days.