This article is a summary of an article from the February 2020 issue of Eating Well magazine. Link here. In 1948, Leland Allbaugh, an American scientist, was intent upon bringing modern medicine, nutrition, and conveniences to the poorest regions of Greece (whose citizens, then, had the lowest per capita income in Europe). When he made it to Crete, whose citizens had the lowest income levels in Greece, he expected to find a sickly and malnourished population. What he found, instead, inspired many future studies about this region of the world and their abundance of health.
Allbaugh found Cretans had a "surprisingly good" diet, as well as an exceedingly low rate of chronic Western diseases. They had barely any incidence of cancer and only suffered about a third of the heart disease-related deaths as Americans at the time. One of the most interesting things to note was that people on the island of Crete had been eating this way for thousands of years (all the way back to the Minoan period around 2000 BC!).
This study inspired Ancel Keys, Ph.D., to travel to Crete about ten years later. Keys used the island's subjects as a "pilot population" for his "Seven Countries Study." His wife, Margaret, termed Cretans exemplary lifestyle and diet as "The Mediterranean Way."
Here are some of the things Allbaugh found in his 1948 study:
Lesson 1: Carbs, Carbs, Carbs!
OK, don't go grabbing your white bread and Frosted Flakes just yet. Cretans ate an incredibly rough barley bread, or "rusk," and this was the staple of their daily diet; in fact, Allbaugh found that 39% of Cretans' daily calories came from whole grains. Archaeologists, who studied Minoan and early civilizations of Crete, found this whole grain bread was so tough that it actually wore down their teeth.
(Tangent alert! If you've read the incredibly interesting and compelling book Breath by James Nestor, you'll know chewing is incredibly important for the structural health of our human skulls and, therefore, our sinus and upper respiratory structures. In fact, when the advent of "processed" grain (ie. soft bread) came about, our human evolution really suffered, giving us everything from crooked teeth to chronic problems associated with mouth-breathing, snoring, and sleep apnea. Incidentally, if this interests you, I highly recommend this book!)
OK, back to whole grains. So what's the modern lesson here?
Switch to 100% whole wheat or 100% whole-grain bread products (look for sprouted grains, like Ezekiel Breads, for an extra punch of nutrition), and get at least one daily portion of wheat-free grains, like oats or barley...stuff you can sink your teeth into and well, chew. Go for at least 28 grams of fiber a day. Want to regulate your bowel habits and reduce your cholesterol? Eat cooked oats every morning. If you commit to this, I promise your colon and heart health will improve dramatically in a very short amount of time.
Lesson 2: No Sugar for You!
This is incredibly un-fun to write, but Cretans basically ate no sugar. They had a measly 50 calories a day from local honey and grape must. This is about 3 teaspoons of added sugar daily. Guess what Americans are averaging these days? 23 teaspoons daily! This is more than Cretans ate in a week. Yikes. So it's safe to say, Cretans (at least from 2000 BC to 1948 AD) didn't eat desserts or pastries. They ate fresh, seasonal fruit. Even the regional delight "Greek yogurt" is unsweetened. Most of us know excess sugar in the diet not only has implications for higher risk of Type 2 Diabetes, but it's also associated with higher risks of cancer and heart disease.
So what's the take-home message here?
Cut out added sugar by reading labels. Aim to get no more than 25 (women) and 36 (men) added grams of sugar a day. Most labels these days differentiate "Sugars/Added Sugars" from "Carbohydrates." What's more, if you aim for those 28 grams of fiber a day, it'll be tough to also get in that added sugar; in other words, you'll more naturally end up eating whole foods and less added sugar.
Lesson 3: Eat Your Greens...and also Fruits!
This is one of the most interesting "tid-bits" from the article that I found. Around 1450 BC, the Minoans ceased to govern their island, and over many centuries, Crete was conquered and occupied again...and again. These foreign invaders exported all of Crete's best produce: namely, lemons, figs, and raisins. Cretans, therefore, were left to fend for themselves and forage in nature.
Lo and behold, there is a bounty out there to be had by scavengers, and a huge part of Cretans' diets became "horta," a broad array of 100 edible plants, like purslane (containing high amounts of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, shown to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes) and dandelion greens (you know, that annoying "weed"...also an Ayurvedic wonder-food that can help ward off liver disease and cancer). Not only did Cretans eat an abundance of wild greens, they also ate a great deal of onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and eggplant, which grow easily in extreme conditions and easily in household gardens.
Similarly, Cretans' "staple fruits" are some of the highest in nutrient density: grapes, pomegranates, and melons (they put Americans' top three fruits, apples, oranges, and bananas, to crying shame). Not to mention the average Cretan consumed 432 pounds of produce annually! Today, each American only gets about 220 pounds annually (neither statistic includes potatoes, by the way...pretty sure most Americans get those in the form of fast-food French fries...).
Eat plants at every meal, and eat the rainbow--the more variety, the better. Get leafy greens (especially the bitter ones that fight cancer, like kale, chard, dandelion, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower) and colorful fruits (especially dark-colored ones like berries and pomegranates with the most cancer-fighting antioxidants) into your diet everyday. I always add half a cup of mixed berries to my morning oatmeal and cook green veggies into my lunch and dinner.
Lesson 4: OK, here's where you might get happy...because it's where we talk about WINE!
So we all know the studies go back and forth...and back and forth...on health benefits of wine. Are 1-2 drinks beneficial, or is alcohol just plain poison?
Here are some scientific facts: red wine is rich in polyphenols, which are the same antioxidant compounds found in olive oil. These guys keep platelets from building up and clotting blood vessels, improve cholesterol, and improve blood vessel function.
Here are some interesting facts to note about the people of Crete and their wine consumption:Cretans drank mostly red wine ("krasi") and always with meals. This is interesting in that some research suggests there is a synergistic relationship between food and wine that promotes heart health better than drinking wine alone. Speaking of "alone"...wine did exactly the opposite for Cretans. As the article states, "[R]egular wine consumption clearly enhanced a general culture of intergenerational sociability--another key pillar in the health and welfare of the long-live Mediterraneans." They weren't drinking to drink; they drank as part of family-style, sit-down meals, everyday, which led to familial and friendship bonds. This strengthened their hearts and supported their mental health. (This speaks to the difference in how many of us consume our food. While every meal was a family or community event for Cretans; for many of us, meals are just something to get out of the way while we stare at a screen.) Allbaugh says Cretans might not have been completely upfront with how much wine they actually consumed out of fear of judgment from the Americans; his research, however, shows that alcohol only accounted for 1% of their total, daily calories. (BTW: two, 6oz glasses of wine account for over 10% of your total calories, if you were to consume 2000 calories in a day.) So maybe they consumed a lot more wine than they appeared to, but they sure consumed it differently from many in today's world.
Bottom line here:
Don't start drinking if you don't already, and approach everything in moderation. Remember, HOW you consume things often matters more than WHAT you consume. So occasional wine with a meal, shared with people you love, could improve your heart health.
Lesson 5: Fat is Friend--Not Foe!
And here's where we talk about olive oil...lots of olive oil. While only 1% of Cretans' daily calories came from wine, a whopping 40% of their calories came from olive oil. In fact, Allbaugh said, to a foreigner, their food seemed to be "swimming" in oil. Olive oil, incidentally, contains monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and raise HDL ("good") cholesterol, which probably accounts (among their other habits) for Cretans low incidences of heart disease.
Experts say that Cretans in the 1940's were probably consuming olive oil harvested when the olives were still green or early-harvested, which means their olive oils were even richer in antioxidants than your typical olive oil. Greener olives contain higher levels of oleocanthal, which is a highly potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects. Oleocanthal has been shown to reduce risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
All extra-virgin olive oils have oleocanthal, but it's worth looking for "early harvest" EVOO, which is a bit more "grassy" than average EVOO. Since EVOO has a higher smoke point (rendering its anti-oxidants basically useless), use it to "finish" meals by drizzling it on veggies, grains, and dishes, and make your dressing out of extra virgin olive oil to punch up the nutrients in your salads.
Lesson 6: Protein from Plants is Power
Even though Cretans would have had access to a very lean, low-in-cholesterol meat from goats, the first domestic animal the Minoans brought to the island around 3000 years ago, they only ate about 7 ounces of goat or other red meat a week (many Americans eat this much in one meal...steak house, anyone?). Cretans, additionally, only at about 6 ounces of fish each week and an average of 2 ounces of poultry a week. This blew my mind!
While there was access to a little fresh milk and cheese, the bulk of Cretans protein came from legumes (think: chickpeas, fava beans, and lentils) and nuts, like almonds, chestnuts, and walnuts. This means, combined with the protein from all those whole grains they were eating, Cretans' diets commanded a whopping 76% of their protein from...you guessed it...PLANTS. With all that heart-healthy fiber and phytonutrients, it's no wonder this community of people had such low risk of heart disease.
If you want to live as long and healthfully as the Cretans, make beans and nuts your protein staples, and "garnish" your diet (if you are an omnivore) with lean cuts of meat and poultry several times a month.
Start off slowly, however: if your household is full of carnivores, start out with one day a week of plant-based eating (ie. "Meatless Mondays");begin to replace red meat with poultry (ground turkey instead of beef or pork); add another day of the week in which you eat seafood-based meals (look for wild-caught over farm-raised fish). Take it one meal at a time, and soon, you'll be trimmer and healthier than you ever thought possible!
Finally, Lesson 7: Portion Control...It's a Thing
So here's one of the most interesting (I know, I know--I think it's all interesting) points to note: when Allbaugh described his study subjects back in 1948, he said they were a pretty hungry bunch. Most Cretans only consumed around 2500 calories a day. You're thinking, "That's a lot of calories, isn't it?" Well, it's about as much as the average, modern American eats, and we mostly sit at desks all day. What you must take into account is the back-breaking physical labor most Cretans did every day; so 2500 calories pretty meager in comparison to actual energy needs.
Additionally, Cretans tended to eat 6 smaller meals a day, instead of 3 squares we are so used to; some studies suggest this is a more effective way of keeping cholesterol and insulin levels in check (both risk factors for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, respectively). Cretans also fasted, in accordance with the Greek Orthodox calendar, on Wednesdays and Fridays (not to mention various religious holidays throughout the year that required the same). This, interestingly, mimics the 5 days of eating and 2 days of fasting a week some studies show can promote longer life span and keep blood sugar levels stable. Things that make you go, "Hmmmm," right?
Pay attention to your portion sizes. Ayurveda says to eat until you're about 70% full so you food has room to "mix" and digest. This is tricky, but if you slow down and pay attention to eating your food (instead of staring at your phone or the TV), you'll begin to find what this means for you. This is also the best way to achieve an ideal body weight for your frame. And, don't worry, if you're hungry again in a few hours, do what the Cretans did and eat another small meal.
I hope you found this as interesting as I did! I think some really important take-homes are: eat more plants and less animal protein AND enjoy your food (and wine!) in good company. The Cretans loved spending time with their families and friends, and they loved to dance. Isn't that what life is all about anyway: whom we love and who loves us? Bring that joy into every meal, and you'll surely live a little longer...or at least a little more happily. Thanks for reading!
Meghan Hays is an Ayurveda Practitioner in Salt Lake City. If you are looking for Ayurveda or an Ayurvedic Clinic in Salt Lake City, please contact Meghan today.