The Real Mediterranean Diet

Last month I spent ten glorious days in Crete.  A stunning island in the very south-east of the Mediterranean, 250 miles away from Athens it is  Greece’s largest island.

It’s the second time I’ve had the pleasure of spending time over there.  Both times staying in Elounda, which is a fishing village, 41 miles away from Heraklion, Crete’s capital city.

Just a few holiday snaps:

Now I haven’t travelled extensively around Europe (yet), but I have to say Crete is rather a utopia.  Miles of beaches beaches, sunny climate, warm people, a history that began history, and stunning mountainous scenery are just some of the reasons it’s worth travelling the 4hours by plane to not just see it but truly experience it.

Because that’s what Crete (and possibly other places in the Med) are like.  It’s an experience.  To see the general populous working, relaxing, chatting and eating is nothing like the general culture you’d see in other places.  Greeks know how to live and do it right.  They put emphasis on things we just take for granted – family, friends, food and drink.  So much so in fact that Crete has some of the longest living citizens in the world.  In 2007 the islands life expectancy was 77.5 for a man and 82.6 for a woman, compared with 77.2 for males and 81.7 for females in the UK.  Crete has some of the lowest heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure rates in the world.

A study was conducted in 1988 Crete was one of the areas that formed the  Seven Countries Study which:

examined the relationships between lifestyle, diet, coronary heart disease and stroke in different populations from different regions of the world – Wikipedia

It discovered over the course of 32 years that CHD risk varied considerably from region to region.  In particular: people living in the Mediterranean had more active lifestyles, ate a lot more fish and vegetables and included an unusually high consumption of olive oil.

That was backed up by more research completed in Crete called the Lyon Heart Study who took 584 subjects, between the ages of 55-80 (who had a history of heart disease) and put them on the Cretan diet for 5yrs.  The results came back extremely positive with the 1999 published report indicating that:

Those who followed the Mediterranean diet had 50%–70% lower risk of recurrent heart disease compared with those who followed a diet similar to the American Heart Association – US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health

As you can imagine compared to the more traditional Western diet and exercise habits the findings were extraordinary and quickly pounced on by media outlets and writers who all began plugging their own version of the Mediterranean diet.  Very quickly it became a sensational diet that everyone needed to do if they wanted to live longer.

Like all studies, these ones come under much scrutiny and continues to be debated today.  People (of science as well as those in business) argue that olive oil is great while others argue it’s downright bad for you.

But it’s not until you actually see Crete yourself that you realise that regardless of their smoking habits (imagine their life expectancy without the smoking!), they have indeed got something right.

They don’t mess about with their food, they mostly eat only what they grow and up until a few years ago managed to hold back the usual nasty Western diet influences.  Yes a lot of people smoke, and yes they drink but if you’re looking for some serious back to basics eating (and enjoying your food) – Crete is the place to find it.

So what exactly is the Mediterranian Cretan diet?

Let’s get one thing clear – there is a general med diet that various countries from Portugal to Bulgaria have in common but Crete is rather special by it’s locality alone.  It’s not mainland, it’s not rich and it contains a hell of a lot of olive oil.  Each person in Crete consumes (on average) 31 – litres per year – per YEAR!  Olives are to Greeks what cumin spice is to India.  It’s a no messing about crop that brings longevity and money to the island.  So when you tell a Cretan that olive oil is bad for you expect them to laugh in your face.  But that’s only one part of it the rest of the healthy staple diet really is staple.  Day in, day out with the only exceptions being religious festivities and family gatherings.

Otherwise, it looks something like this:

Source – Old Ways

Looks easy and it was – in Crete.  The whole time I spent there I only ate meat once, fish a few times and the rest and base of every meals were veggies and legumes.  Breakfasts consisted of mostly fruit, lunch was mostly salads and dinners were mostly veggies.  I never over-ate not felt hungry.  In fact after every meal I felt satisfied and more energised than I had in ages.  Eating vegetarian (and even vegan) was no hassle, anywhere.

Can you eat Cretan in the UK?

You certainly can.  I’ve been eating much more Cretan-esk since coming home.  Most days my lunch consists of a Greek salad (chopped onion, tomatoes, cucumber and some Feta) or some honey and Greek Yoghurt, with a handful of walnuts for breakfast.  Or Some deliciously roasted potatoes in herbs with garlic and olive oil is filling too.

As I’m 98% veggie now it’s not hard to stay away from the pork and fish but the very best thing about eating like I live in Crete is that it’s so cheap!  No expensive, limp looking lettuce for me.  No exotic ingredients, no fuss and no bother.  Just standard foods, mostly plant based, that are simply made even more enjoyable by the herbs and oil they are cooked with.

I learnt a lot when I went to Crete.  When I sit down and eat I appreciate my food even more now.  I enjoy every mouthful because not only is it doing me good but it’s also a much better way to eat for the planet.  In Crete plant based food, as a main staple, has been eaten on the island for centuries and created legevity that we have long forgotten.  Now it’s time to get it back.

Enjoy your week.  Until next time –  be good and Green.

Question of the week:

If you could live anywhere in the world just on the basis of food you could consume – where would it be?