The Cretan Diet - The Original Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been recognized for the last 40+ years, but as is often the case when serious dollars are at stake, it has also morphed into an overly simplistic message (consume more fish, olive oil and wine and less red meat) that has, in reality, veered a bit off its original course. The term “Mediterranean diet” is really a bit deceptive, as the Mediterranean is a large and very diverse region with 23 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea with two island nations located in it. How can all these countries, which vary so much in culture, economics, geographical location and religion possibly have a single diet, called the Mediterranean Diet?
The short answer is they can’t.
What has become known as the Mediterranean diet is frequently marketed as being some combination of Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisines. In actually, the Mediterranean diet is derived from a fairly comprehensive study into the diets of 7 countries across the globe that started back in the late 1950’s. The country that was deemed to have the most heart healthy diet out of these 7 countries was from the island of Crete (pronounced kreet). From a marketing perspective, one of the worst things you can do is have a name that people aren’t sure how to say and/ or isn’t memorable. The Mediterranean diet was easier to pronounce and much catchier than the Crete or Cretan diet.
To really understand the true heart and soul of the healthiest diet in the world (in terms of low instances of cardio vascular disease, various forms of cancer and with a long life expectancy) we need to delve deeper into the research and the actual diet of the Cretans. Many nutritionists consider this to be the ideal diet.
About CreteGreece has 1,400 islands -- 230 of them inhabited -- and the islands are one of the Mediterranean's most dazzling assets. Crete is Greece's largest island and the fifth largest island (a little over 3,200 square miles or about the size of Maine) in the Mediterranean Sea. The island of Crete is just south of mainland Greece (about 250 miles from Athens, Greece), southwest of Turkey and north of Libya and Egypt.
The cultural history of Crete goes back to 8000 BC, even pre-dating the ancient Crete Minoan (pronounced "mi noh uh") civilization, the first civilization in Europe, by more than four thousand years. The archaeological record of Crete includes superb palaces, houses, roads, paintings and sculptures. Early Neolithic (10,200BC -- 2,000BC) settlements in Crete include Knossos (considered Europe’s oldest city) and the Cave of Trapeza. Archaeological digs in Southern Crete in 2008-2009 uncovered the most primitive stone tools (new window) from the Paleolithic period which dates back to no later than 130,000 years ago. Crete is also the legendary birthplace of Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek mythology, who ruled as King of the Gods on Mount Olympus.
For thousands of years Cretans have eaten only what their land produced – which was lots of fruits, vegetables, olives, whole grains and pulses (the dried seeds of legumes such as beans, lentils and peas). Cretans consume a great deal of olive oil, significantly more than any other Mediterranean people and they don't use any other type of oil.
The Science Behind the Cretan DietUnderstanding the back story behind this original research is to discover that it didn’t turn out as expected. It starts with the lead researcher Ancel Keys, who was a professor and director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota from 1940-1972. Keys made a name for himself in 1941, when he was assigned by the US War Department to help feed front line WW II soldiers for short durations. He ended up creating the K-ration, which were three separately boxed meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that were lightweight (about 28 ounces each) and provided essential energy (between 2,830 – 3,000 calories per meal) to these soldiers. The Army had unsuccessfully tested 4 earlier versions of daily rations (known as A-ration, B-ration, C-ration and D-ration) and it is said that Key’s ration was called K-ration as a hat tip to him.
Keys officially began his Seven Country Study (new window) in 1957, but initially began gathering data in 1947 shortly after the end of WW II. The findings of this extensive study were released in 1972. The research was a multi-country study that systematically examined the relationships between lifestyle, diet and coronary heart disease in different populations from different regions of the world. The study surveyed rural men 40 to 59 years old from 1958 to 1970. The researchers choose regions in each of these countries where the traditions of daily living (food consumed and type of work) were much the same as they had been for centuries. This allowed an accurate analysis of typical diets and lifestyles. The seven countries in the study were America, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Japan.
The research found that East Finland had the highest rates of heart disease deaths at 171 deaths per thousand, the US had 92 deaths, Italy 24, Japan 13 and the Greek island of Crete had an almost unbelievable 3 deaths per thousand.
The international team had conducted some early surveys in remote villages in Italy, and they wanted to see if similar work could be done in villages in other countries. In 1957, Dr. Andy Dontas and Dr. Christ Aravanis, a leading cardiologist in Athens, proposed conducting the study in villages on the island of Crete.
Crete was chosen as instances of coronary heart disease were reportedly quite rare and the researchers had been told of farmers still working at 100 years of age. This proved to be an ideal setting to test a population with a relatively high fat diet made up of high monosaturated and low saturated fatty acids. The researchers initially studied 13 villages in Kastelli Pediada county and the subjects were 657 men aged 45-64. The results of the surveys were astonishing - as only 2 cases of myocardial infarction were found. In a similar population, in America there would have been at least 10 cases for the same number of subjects. The diet was odd compared to other countries in the study, as almost 40% of the total calories came from fats. They found many farmers started their day by drinking between a shot and cupful of olive oil.
A look back at the original research about the Cretan diet reveals a natural rhythmic pattern (consuming what was in season) of eating far more nutritionally complex foods, and in reality, not easily replicated outside its place of origin.
Based on diet, some countries in the study did far worse than expected (Finland), with heart attacks higher than mean cholesterol values. Other countries, specifically the island of Crete was much lower than predicted.
The Overview of the Cretan DietDuring this research, it was found that the men of rural Crete consumed significant amounts of olive oil, olives, fruits, nuts and vegetables (especially wild greens). They consumed moderate amounts of fish, cheese and red wine and very small amounts of eggs, meat and milk. The essence of their diet was abundant amounts of antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins E and C, phytochemcials and selenium.
What was surprising to the researchers was that the Cretans had one of the highest fat diets with approximately 37% of their calories coming from fats (mostly from olive oil). They also consumed high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and large amounts of wild plants, nuts, legumes and figs that were all high in ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid). The protein that was consumed from sources other than fish and legumes were free range chicken, eggs and some meats.
How to Eat Like a 1950’s CretanThe diet of a late 1950’s Cretan can’t be replicated exactly, as not many people in this country forage for wild greens and the availability of free-range and grass-fed eggs and meat is quite limited and cost prohibitive. However, with a little effort, many people can follow the basic tenets of the Cretan diet. You’ll need to understand the hierarchy (think of it as the Cretan food pyramid) of fats, fruits and vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts, eggs, fish, herbs, dairy and meat.
Cretan cuisine is one of foundation, not of complicated sauces. Its strength lies in the quality and freshness of its ingredients, the use of wild herbs and greens, and purity of taste. And not to be forgotten, the copious use of olive oil, Crete’s liquid gold.
Fat makes up about 35%-40% of daily calories in the Cretan diet. Cretans get their fat from olive oil and olives instead of butter, meat and other oils. Various studies have found that Cretans had the highest intake of olive oil compared to other Mediterranean countries, with amounts that were significantly higher than what the Italians and Spaniards consumed. To place the importance of olive oil to the Cretan diet in perspective, consider that average olive oil consumption in Spain is 12 liters/person, Italy 11 liters/person and the US runs about 0.5 liter/person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters per person per year.
Fruits and Vegetables
In Key’s Seven Country Study, it was observed that Cretans ate more fruit than any of the other Mediterranean countries and much more than other countries in the study. From November to April, grapefruit, lemons, oranges and tangerines are plentiful, in March Mousmoula (resembles a nectarine) makes its first appearance, in June apricots and melons kick into gear, at the beginning of July apples, peaches and plums are found everywhere, in August black and green grapes take center stage and from September to October it's all about figs and pomegranates.
As for vegetables, the consumption was also high, but what really made the difference were the wild greens. In Crete, you can find wild greens that do not grow anywhere else in the world (for example wild stamnagathi). Studies have shown that these greens are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and vitamin E. Wild greens are boiled and smothered in olive oil and lemon. They did consume vegetables that most of us are quite familiar with including artichokes, bell peppers, cabbages, chickpeas, cucumbers, green beans, grape leaves, leeks, okra, purslane (generally considered an exotic weed but has more omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid in particular, than any other leafy vegetable plant), runner beans, small squashes, tomatoes and zucchini.
The average Cretan consumed 9-12 servings of fruits and vegetables each day compared to the current USDA recommendations of about 4.5 servings combined.
Grains and Potatoes
The main grains consumed were the whole grains barley and wheat in the form of bread, rolls and rusk. Bread was typically made from all barley or a combination of barley and wheat, rusks from a barley and wheat mixture, Bread was eaten daily (usually with lots of olive oil). They also consumed a wide variety of potatoes, rice and on occasion hilopites (a type of egg noodle).
Cretans ate Pulses on average 3 times a week. Pulses are part of the legume family, but the term “pulse” refers only to the dried seed. Pulses are very high in protein and fiber, and are low in fat. The Cretan’s preferred pulses were broad beans, fava beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, split peas and white beans.
Nuts consumed in Crete are most often almonds, hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts.
While eggs were not a huge part of the Cretan diet, they did consume 2-3 eggs a week. The biggest difference is that the chickens that produced the eggs were all free-range chickens that instead of eating grains like chickens in the US, lived on figs, grasses, insects, worms and purslane. This not only made the chickens healthier, but meant that the eggs are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish was consumed once or twice a week. People living near the coast ate mostly fresh fish, while inland and in the mountainous regions salted fish was more common.
The Cretans were not big on spices, but they did often cook with fresh herbs, especially oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme.
Not a big part of the typically diet at the time and what was consumed would be cheese and not milk.
Chicken was consumed on a weekly (but not daily) basis, and also in very small quantities. Snails are eaten more frequently than other types of “meat”, and it is said that the snails in Crete contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to the snails of France. Cretans consumed very little meat and red meat was limited mostly to holidays, and even then in very, very small amounts (about 2 ounces at a sitting). Meat was never the center of attention of a meal like in most of the west. Instead, it is a complimentary flavor.
Moderate consumption of wine is a part of daily life on Crete and wine has a long storied history on the island. The islands early Minoan Civilization (3000 BC - 1150 BC) was a highly sophisticated people that not only had a flourishing economy with agricultural, livestock-raising and commercial activities but they successfully cultivated and traded olive oil, grains (cereals) and wine with Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor.
Grapes have been systemically cultivated in Crete for at least 4000 years, and the island is also home to the world’s oldest known wine-press (3,500 years old). Homer, the legendary Greek author, wrote that during his time, Cretan wines were renowned throughout the known world. In addition to the ancient wine-press that the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (new window) unearthed at the palace of Knossos (1900-1905), he also discovered vast underground wine storage facilities which revealed the Minoans' advanced agriculture capabilities and wine's key role in the daily life of the island.
In Search of the Perfect DietMany Americans think about dieting at the beginning of each year. According to a recent Nielsen survey, it was the 2nd most common resolution (32% said lose weight) trailing only “stay fit and healthy” (37%). But sadly, most Americans are looking for something quick and easy like a magic pill, juice or smoothie.
While the Cretan diet isn’t necessarily quick, it is relatively simple and very commonsensical. I’m certainly not going all vegan or vegetarian here, but more focus on in-season fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and olive oil and less on chicken and eggs while only having red meat on very rare occasions, you will not only likely lose weight but feel better, reduce your risk of heart disease and some cancers and possibly increase your life expectancy.
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