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Mediterranean Diet & Greece: Where People Forget to Die

mtaussig's picture
on Thu, 11/15/2012 - 12:30
Untours, Greece, Mediterranean Diet, NYTimes

A recent testament to the healthy properties of the Mediterranean Diet, specifically the Greek diet, has inspired us here at Untours.  (Read the entire article in last week's NY TImes magazine here: The Island Where People Forget to Die)

  • This article  profiles a Greek WWII veteran, Stamatis Moraitis,  who came to the US in 1943, seeking treatment for combat wounds, stayed, married a Greek-American girl and settled down. A typical story, you might say.  However,  in 1976, after growing short of breath, Moraitis was diagnosed with lung cancer, and given 9 months to live.  He decided that, with such a prognosis, he wanted to return to the home of his youth, the Greek island of Ikaria,where he could be buried with his ancestors, in a graveyard, shaded by oak trees that overlooked the Aegean Sea. What you might not know is that in Moraitis's home,  Ikaria, people reach the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do. (Ikarian men are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health.)
  • Moraitis didn't die in nine months.  And after a few months in Ikaria, he began to feel better.   The author of the article describes his most recent conversation with him:  "He picked up the phone in the same whitewashed house that he’d moved into 35 years ago. It was late afternoon in Ikaria. He had worked in his vineyard that morning and just awakened from a nap. We chatted for a few minutes, but then he warned me that some of his neighbors were coming over for a drink in a few minutes and he’d have to go. I had one last question for him. How does he think he recovered from lung cancer?"

“It just went away,” he said. “I actually went back to America about 25 years after moving here to see if the doctors could explain it to me.”

I had heard this part of the story before. It had become a piece of the folklore of Ikaria, proof of its exceptional way of life. Still, I asked him, “What happened?”

“My doctors were all dead.”

It's not just Ikaria.  In the fifties, researchers studied the diets and habits of seven countries, including the U.S.. Japan and Greece  (often referred to as the Seven Countries Study). The results: individuals from Greece had the lowest rates of heart disease and lived the longest even though the fat intake of their diet was relatively high. 

This might puzzle the reader.  If you are not from Greece you could be excused for thinking Greek diet is made up of what you find in Greek restaurants such as  fried cheese (saganaki) and souvlaki.  However, in the 1950's,at the time of the study, dietary pattern of Greeks consisted of a high intake of fruits, vegetables (particularly wild plants), nuts, cereals (more sourdough bread than pasta) and lots more more olive oil and olives.  Dairy was consumed primarily  in the form of cheese and yoghurt.  Red meat was a rarity, but fish was common, especially sardines and anchovies.  Along with a moderate amounts of wine, these were the main elements of the Greek diet,    Sadly, the Greek diet, in general, has become somewhat less healthy as exposure to other cuisines introduced newer, less healthy elements.  Happily, it is also true that the healthy elements of Mediterranean diet are becoming increasingly well-known outside Greece.

Along with many vegetables (often served in casseroles as a main dish), Greeks eat a good deal of the small fish -- sardines and anchovies.  The fat (Omega-3) from these fish are believed to have healthy properties that may shield people from heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and even depression. In addition, seasonings like garlic, lemon, onion, oregano, parsley, laurel, mint, dill, cinnamon, cumin, and allspice, are at the heart of the Greek chef's staples. Greeks are also fond of a daily cup or two of tea, often made from the local spices (sage, mint, rosemary).  Lemon and local honey are often added to the tea.  All these ingredients, many dieticians agree, have healthful properties, particularly when they are grown locally.

It is interesting to  think about how the culture, the the history, the terrain and the climate, in combination, all combined to create this diet:

  • Poverty: till the 1950's, most Greeks had very little disposable income.  Meat, especially red meat, was expensive. Desserts were probably also a luxury, so the typical Greek usually had a fresh fruit (plentiful and cheap) as the sweet to end the meal.
  • Sun = fruits, veggies and lots of olive trees:  A long  sunny  growing season meant plentiful fruits and vegetables, and a perfect habitat for miles and miles of olive orchards.  Systematic cultivation of olives trees is said to have begun on the island of Crete in Neolithic times and Greece rounds out the trio of largest producers of olive oil in the world (along with Spain and Italy) 
  • Sea: providing easy access to fish as a staple. Fish for much of the Greek population would always be nearby and could be obtained by anyone with fishing gear.
  • Rocks & Mountains: The terrain is not really suitable for grazing cattle but works well for  sheep and goats.
  • Religion: The Greek Orthodox Religion requires its followers to fast for over 180 days a year, and this fast consisted of avoiding animal products.  So it was natural that tasty vegetarian dishes emerged from such a practice.

Is it possible that the secret to the evolution of this diet, now an icon of healthful eating, was just this simple: in this particular place,  the  cheapest, most accessible foods were also the most healthful?

Ask any of our Greek Untourists who have sojourned in Nafplio.  It has a feel very much like Ikaria....one can easily imagine forgetting to die here.

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