Mediterranean Diet Post 8: Actual Meals

The study below included an approximation of three diets of Crete. The authors describe them as:

Diet A) The traditional diet of Crete in the 1960s.
Diet B) The diet of present-day (1994) adolescents in Crete.
Diet C) The fasting diet of the Greek Orthodox Church (1996).

Mediterranean Diet of Crete, Food And Nutrient Content, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, December 2000

A) One diet represented the traditional Cretan diet of the 1960s, which has been of great interest because of its cardioprotective benefits as inferred from large epidemiologic studies such as the Seven Countries study. The population of Crete was found to have the best health status and the lowest morbidity and mortality rates from coronary heart disease and cancer of all 16 cohorts, including other Mediterranean populations. The 3 Italian cohorts, for example, had over twice as high 25-year mortality rates for coronary heart disease in comparison with the Cretan cohort. The Cretan cohort had the lowest, age-adjusted, all-cause mortality rate after 20 years. The diet of the population of Crete was found to be the main factor related to excellent health status and lowest mortality rates.

B) Also analyzed was the present-day diet of adolescents, a diet that reflects the Westernized trends that are increasingly evident in the diet of young Greeks.

C) The third diet analyzed was that of the Greek Orthodox church during a period of fasting. The fasting period as defined by the church has been one of the main characteristics of the Cretan Mediterranean diet for the past 2,000 years. The tradition is maintained in the Greek monasteries, and many elderly Greeks still follow the fasting rules.

This is why I have been focusing on the Greek diet, particularly Crete, in my Mediterranean Diet posts, and not, say, the Italian diet.

Here’s a table from the study:

What do you see?

I see a few things … Diet A has salad almost every day, sometimes twice a day. Whole fruit every day. Lots of cooked vegetables. It also has a lot of dairy food: milk, cheese, or yogurt almost every morning. There is animal food 5 out of 7 days for lunch, and 4 out of 7 for dinner (egg, yogurt, cheese, fish). There is eating going on 5 times a day. And olive oil every day. I’m having a hard time believing that this is the traditional Mediterranean diet, that poor rural Cretans who had just emerged from a World War and a Civil War, which together devasted the country and caused hundreds of thousands to flee because they couldn’t feed themselves, would eat this abundantly. What’s more likely is that this was a diet indirectly subsidized by the United States to prevent war-torn Greece from aligning with communist countries. Greece joined NATO in 1952 and thanks to the Truman Doctrine, was flush with Western money and influence by the early 1960s, when Diet A was recorded.

About fasting (which seems to be more about choice of food than outright non-eating):

Mount Athos monks, who are thought to follow the traditional Mediterranean diet, and who adhere to the tenets of the Eastern Orthodox Church, eat two meals a day, the morning meal and the evening meal:

They eat two meals a day. The “first meal” lasts 10 minutes; the “second meal” also lasts 10 minutes. There’s no meat and no dinner table conversation – the only sound is a monk reading from sacred texts.

Fasting And Feasting On Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016
The Divine Cuisine of Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016
Mt. Athos: A Visit To The Holy Mountain, CBS 60 Minutes, May 2011

Those in Diet C here, which is supposed to represent the tenets of the Eastern Orthodox church, also appear to be eating two meals, at least during the week. It was during the fasting period of Lent.

The authors say:

The fasting period as defined by the church has been one of the main characteristics of the Cretan Mediterranean diet for the past 2,000 years.

Most people in Greece are Eastern Orthodox, and, as I read, practice the fasting aspects of their religion:

The trend towards secularism has been less pronounced in the traditionally Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe. Greece as the only traditionally Eastern Orthodox country in Europe which has not been part of the communist Eastern Bloc also retains a very high religiosity, with in excess of 95% of Greeks adhering to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Greece isn’t a secular country. Its diet reflects that, e.g. no olive oil, meat, fish, milk and dairy products every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year. But Diet A broke this tradition. It seems to be a non-fasting, secular diet.

Interestingly, Diet C also diverges from the fasting rituals described by the Orthodox religion. During Lent, meat, dairy, and eggs are not allowed, fish is allowed except on Wednesdays and Fridays, oil is allowed only on the weekend. I see dairy food and oil during the week, not much though.

Here is the extent of Diet C’s fruits and vegetables (servings/week): avocado (6), tomato (5), olives (5), orange (4), apple (3), radish (2), spinach (2), chicory (1), artichokes (2). Is that a lot? There is a lot of bread. The food is simple. A meal might consist of lentils (no oil) with olives, bread, and an orange; rice with tomato (no oil), bread, and an apple; on weekends, pasta with oil, tomatoes, bread, apple, and red wine … but only about 6 ounces of wine a week!

To me, Diet C is a whole lot closer to how people in Greece ate during the first half of the twentieth century when their reputation for health and longevity was being forged.

4 thoughts on “Mediterranean Diet Post 8: Actual Meals

  1. Bix Post author

    There’s so much more I could say about this table but I’m short on time. I think you’ll see things.

    One thing … I think we (say, people of means living in the United States in the 21st Century) tend to project our lifestyles on to people from the past. I think we expect people to eat as often and as much as we do. I think about how the Mediterranean diet, or what we call a “Mediterranean diet,” or really any diet people ate hundreds and thousands of years ago was mostly about getting fed. There wasn’t electricity, refrigerators, appliances. (I’m recalling that people in Britain didn’t have refrigerators in their homes until the 1950s.) There was a lot of manual labor. Life was different, in more ways than I can even imagine I’m sure.

    Reply
  2. mboydp

    Have you looked at the Sardinian traditional diet? Just cuurious, as t’s pretty much how I eat, though not as much dairy–only goat or sheep’s milk cheeses. I do walk, but I don’t scramble around in the hills, as the Sardinian men do (very aerobic!). And sadly, I lack their family and social networks, as likewise with the Greeks, Okinawans, etc.
    Re the Greeks, the ones who aren’t urban usually grow fruit, nut, olive trees and have veggie gardens. I would imagine that urban Greeks probably eat more westernized diets. What do you think?

    Reply
  3. Bix Post author

    I think … The reason the Mediterranean diet is so elusive, so hard to define, is that there really isn’t a Mediterranean diet. First, you’d have to say what country you’re talking about, of the 18 or so countries that border the Mediterranean. Then you’d have to name the era; the Greek diet in the 1940s was quite a bit different from the Greek diet in the 1990s. Then you’d have to say whether you’re talking urban or rural, for reasons you stated. And finally, but maybe most importantly, you’d have to define economic status; e.g. low-income Americans eat a diet unlike that of higher-income Americans. Should you consider religion? “Mediterranean diet” just seems like a crazy way to describe an eating pattern.

    In my mind, the Mediterranean diet, with its halo of health, is a concept promoted by food conglomerates to sell product.

    Reply

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