The sensational Cretan Diet
Many researchers believe that the dramatic increase in the instance of ‘diseases of civilization’- cancers, arterial disease and diabetes - in Europe and the USA over recent decades may be due to a combination of factors, among them genetic proclivity, environmental pollution, mental and physical stress, and a diet rich in meat, animal fats, refined sugar and additives, which is partly a consequence of the consumption of refined, ready-prepared, and ‘fast’ foods. Over the years, the quest to define an ideal dietary regime has concentrated on the possible relationship between basic ethnic diets and the instance or absence of certain diseases amongst populations. In 1980, Dr Ancel Keys published the results of a study carried out during the Fifties and Sixties, which concerned the dietary habits and illnesses of groups from seven geographical areas – Crete, Corfu, the Dalmatian coast, southern Italy, Holland, the United States and Japan. The study involved 11,500 people; it revealed that while the populations concerned were subject to similar degrees of environmental pollution and stress in everyday life, their dietary habits differed. It became clear to Keys that the populations of the Mediterranean countries involved in the research exhibited lower instances of heart disease and various cancers at the time the study was carried out. He deduced that this could only have been due to their different diet, and in particular to the nature of the fat content and intake of certain substances, such as antioxidants, which are vital to health. Thus was born the term “Mediterranean Diet”, which refers to the dietary regime, in the 50s and 60s, of those populations located around the Mediterranean Basin. Statistically, of the groups from the seven countries studied, the Cretan test group exhibited 95-97 % fewer cases of arterial sclerosis, and a much smaller instance of heart attacks when compared to the others. Although genetic factors may contribute to this difference, it was observed that in particular the Cretan dietary regime differed notably from the Mediterranean Diet in that, on Crete, smaller amounts of bread and alcohol were seen to be consumed than in Italy, Yugoslavia and even on Corfu (the other Greek island studied), whereas the consumption of olive oil, fruit and pulses was higher.
The benefits reaped from the traditional Mediterranean dietary regime were either due to the latter, or to a particular component substance in the olive oil which was consumed in large quantities, or to a fine balance achieved by the combination of several components in the diet. To sum up, the olive-oil based traditional diet of the Fifties and Sixties on the island of Crete, low in the saturated trans-fatty acids contained in meat, butter, margarines or spreads, and high in the antioxidants found in fruit and vegetables, together with the consumption of pulses, fish and complex carbohydrates with little or no meat and very moderate dairy products, was singled out by Keys as one of especial value because of the low instance of heart disease observed amongst its population; his premise has since been corroborated by other studies. What is more - traditional Cretan food is delicious!
Further reading: A. Keys: “Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease”. Harvard University Press, Cambridge/Mass, 1980)