After the Second World War and their Civil War, Greece was devastated. In 1952, they joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and began to rebuild. Their traditional ways of eating were giving way to Western influence.
It’s hard to find a group of people alive today that still follow the traditional diet. But there is a place. It’s on a secluded peninsula in northeastern Greece: Mount Athos. The entire population is male and has been for almost a thousand years. Women are forbidden, even female animals: “Female animals, chickens, cows, ewes, nanny-goats, mares, and sows are also barred except for female cats, female insects and female songbirds.” Although it is geographically secluded, it is not genetically secluded. Men, many young and well-educated from all over Europe (Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia) live in monasteries there. So, if they are in good health, it may be more a result of their lifestyle than their genes. And, yes, they are in good health:
How Do Mount Athos Monks Stay So Healthy?, CBS News, December 2011
[The monks] live long lives with shockingly low levels of cancer and heart disease. Alzheimer’s is virtually unheard of.
“What seems to be the key is a diet that alternates between olive oil and non olive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins”, Haris Aidonopoulos, a urologist at the University of Thessaloniki, told The Independent in 2007. “It’s not only what we call the Mediterranean diet, but also eating the old-fashioned way. Simple meals at regular intervals are very important.”
The results seem impressive. The health of 1,500 monks was studied between 1994 and 2007. None had developed lung or bowel cancer. Only 11 had prostate cancer, a fraction of the international rate.
The Guardian published a photo essay of Mount Athos monks. Here are a few of their photos:
Working: (Is that an apricot tree in the upper left-hand corner?)
Some monks chose to live, not in monasteries but in smaller, more modest communities called sketes:
There are 20 monasteries on Mount Athos. Wikipedia has a photo of all 20. Some beautiful buildings. Here are two: