One great thing about the internet is that there is so much information at our disposal. One not-so-great thing about the internet is that there is so much information at our disposal. I have to focus. In this post, I’m going to focus on Greece.
From Mediterranean Diet Of Crete, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, December 2000:
[The diet of Crete] has been shown to be related to the lowest rates for coronary heart disease and cancer mortality compared with the diets of the other populations of the Seven Countries study … including other Mediterranean populations.
Crete is not the only Greek island with a reputation for health and longevity. There’s also Ikaria, a Blue Zone, The Island Where People Forget To Die.”
Yet Greece and its islands have a long history of conflicts, both externally and internally. They suffered mightily during the Second World War. By 1941, “more than 100,000 were thought to die in famine.” Their Civil War which followed was also devastating:
Many Greeks left their home country in search of a better life. They were unable to feed their families and make a living during these periods of instability.
The island suffered losses in property and lives during the Second World War as the result of the Italian and then German occupation. There are no exact figures on how many people starved, but in the village of Karavostamo alone over 100 perished from starvation.
The Germans occupied Crete during WWII:
After the general retreat from Greece in October 1944, the Germans, along with some Italian battalions, remained in Crete. … [But] they were cut off. … The food problem was a serious one both for them and the inhabitants.
Men who might have been with their families, farming and contributing to food provision were instead imprisoned:
Robert McCabe photographed Greece in the 1950s. This was after their Civil War and before Western tourism.
His depictions of the people reveal the daily struggle for survival in stark tones: faces creased by wrinkles, intense, clear eyes, people toiling, children getting by on the basics yet still smiling.
What do you see here? I see a poor, exhausted, hungry population. Their Civil War formally ended in 1949 but fighting continued into the early 1950s, just a few years before Ancel Keys’ collection of food records. So, the backdrop for the Mediterranean diet in Greece, the diet that is renowned for improving health, is one of poverty and adversity.
Can you think of other diets where adversity and frugality gave rise to better health? I can think of two: the sweet-potato-based Okinawa diet that islanders were eating at the end of World War II, and the high-carb diet Cubans were eating in 1980 during their Special Period when they lost trade with Russia. “The primary sources of energy during the crisis were sugar cane and rice.”
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