Story and photosby Manos Angelakis
Much is usually made about the healthy results of following a “Mediterranean Diet” yet, the healthiest of all Mediterranean diets, the “Cretan Diet,” is rarely given any credence for the considerable and healthy longevity of the residents of this Greek island.
French professor Serge Renaud, the father of the French Paradox, did another study where he used the Cretan dietary prototype vs. the recommendations of the American Heart Association for a healthy diet following a heart attack, while participants were still under medical observation.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet with a very low intake of fats. The Cretan diet is very high in fat; but the vast majority is from uncooked, virgin or extra virgin olive oil and not from meat fat or seed oils. Most of the animal fat in the Cretan diet is in the form of sheep's or goat's cheese and yoghurt. The lactobacillus acidophilus in the last two products is considered as “gut-friendly” bacteria that normally live in our digestive, urinary, and genital systems without causing disease. The World Health Organization defines lactobacillus acidophilus as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. The usual health benefits are better digestion, reduction of high cholesterol, and general support of the immune system.
In the Renaud study, participants were divided into 2 advanced age groups: one group ate according to the guidelines set by the American Heart Association; the other ate according to the Cretan dietary prototype. The group under the AHA guidelines had a mortality of almost 70% vs. the mortality of those on the Cretan diet.
The longevity of Cretans is due to their way of life. A Cretan enjoys life in the company of family and friends. He/she never eats or drinks alone; it is always with company, having fun while enjoying a couple glasses of wine or tsipouro (an alcoholic beverage similar to ouzo, arrack or anisette).
In Crete, as in other Mediterranean regions, the diet has small amounts of meat; since ancient times meat has been eaten mostly as part of rituals. Earlier Greeks ate meat only twice or three times a month, following sacrifices or as part of religious celebrations. Even today, the majority of Cretans eat red meat on Sunday or during religious holidays.
Poultry, mostly chickens or roosters and sometime pigeons or feathered game, is eaten when entertaining guests.
Cretans eat three times as much bread as the average American. However, most of the bread in their diet has lots of roughage; white flour bread is only consumed on feast days such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter and other religious holidays in the form of Tsoureki or Basilopita (St. Basil’s pie) and kalitsounia or lichnarakia i.e. little oil lamps (because the sweets are shaped like ancient oil lamps with multiple wicks); these are small, open faced sweets, filled with fresh mizithra cheese or anthotyro and topped with honey. Much of the bread consumption is in the form of “dakos” a whole wheat or barley rusk topped with salad and feta or manouri cheese.
Fish, mostly fatty fish like mackerel, bonito or sardines and larger fish, like red or black snapper or grouper or sea bream or swordfish, are consumed fresh, salted or smoked at least weekly and, during certain times of the year, are consumed instead of meat on Fridays.
Fruits and vegetables: The Cretans eat more fruits, vegetables and pulses (legumes) than any other Mediterranean inhabitant. Vegetables and pulses are the basis of the daily diet, followed by fruit. Even today, the variety of vegetables eaten in a Cretan home is astounding and prodigious.
Wine with the food: One or usually two glasses of wine are always drunk with a meal. A Cretan never drinks alone; only with family or friends or neighbors enjoying the “gift of the vine.”
Traditional food is served in most Cretan homes. Many of the recipes have been results of a long culinary tradition often passed from grandmothers to granddaughters, since home cooking is done by the women of the household.
My grandfather, who lived to be 103 (1850 - 1953), spent most of his life eating a typical Cretan diet; though in his later hears he enjoyed very much my mother's “oriental cooking” especially her vine leaves stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, rice and pine nuts then covered with a savory egg/lemon sauce. He always had a small shot of ouzo or tsipouro (Cretan white lightning) after lunch and supper, calling it a “plinothondion” i.e. a tooth cleanser.
According to my grandfather, “If you drink alcohol in moderation, you will never get any adverse effect”. If people attempt to go beyond a moderate intake, let’s understand that alcohol is a drug, and as any other drug, it has to be ingested at a proper dosage.
I believe that moderate alcohol intake is only a single parameter influencing a long and health life. The general lifestyle, such as stress avoidance (even though my grandfather, Emmanouil S. Angelakis, spent a considerable time of his youth on the mountains, being chased by the Ottoman occupiers of Crete during the Cretan War of Independence; he eventually became an officer of the Venizelos government and the first representative of Eastern Crete to the Greek Parliament in Athens); overall diet and clean air are as important elements for one's wellbeing as are a couple glasses of wine and plenty of olive oil in cooking.
To your health!
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