At the end of the 60s Greece’s population enjoyed low mortality regarding cardiovascular diseases and several cancers. That observation attracted the interest of the scientific community and later on, -during the late ’70s-, the so called “Seven Countries Study” came to correlate positively Mediterranean eating habits with those low mortality rates.
But during the past 30 years, the whole picture has been changing dramatically due to the rapid urbanization and westernization of the lifestyle of the Greeks and other Mediterranean population. Their diet and the generic way of life is now far from the “standard” -traditional Cretan- Mediterranean diet, that people used to be having during the late ’50s.
Features of Mediterranean diet
But what is the “Mediterranean diet”? We hear so many facts about it even on a daily basis, but if we are asked about it, it may be impossible to describe it. Most of you will have seen it in some form that is so-called “Pyramid” of the Mediterranean Diet and that is nothing more than an attempt of schematic representation of the key components of the Mediterranean diet. Indeed, at the base of the pyramid we find those food groups that should be consumed with greater frequency and quantity. As we climb to the peak, frequency and quantity of consumption of food displayed is reduced. For example, the pyramid informs us that it is good to consume many slightly (or not at all) refined grains, fruits and vegetables more frequently and on a daily basis. Unlike the above, red meat should be put in our plates rarely, let’s say once per month.
However, when we briefly refer to the typical Mediterranean diet, we talk about:
Increased intake of vegetable oils (mainly olive oil), slightly refined cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
- Moderate consumption of dairy products, fish, poultry and eggs
- Low intake of red meat, animal fats and sweets
- Mild alcohol consumption
- Variety and balance in food choices
- High levels of physical activity
Mediterranean Diet or a Mediterranean lifestyle?
You could certainly be wondering if it was just the different way of eating a few decades ago that shielded us against cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. The answer is “not only” of course. We would make a critical mistake to regard only the Mediterranean diet as a health factor during that period, apart from the broader lifestyle. So, if we want to discuss correctly, is more appropriate to refer to a “Mediterranean lifestyle” that is additionally characterized by:
Its mild climate, a restful -without much stress- psychosocial environment, a vigorous daily physical activity (manual labor, walking, exercising etc.), the midday siesta, the numerous family members who lived under the same roof and more. Along with the eating habits, all the above details of daily lifestyle have changed radically nowadays, acting together synergistically in increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.
The Mediterranean Diet: “A Global Revolution” or not?
Strictly referring to it, we can not talk about a “revolution”, at least for the Mediterranean countries, since a few decades ago this way of eating and living was a matter of course. Like Odysseus (Ulysses), we did not discover Ithaca now; we are just trying to get back to it. For all other people and western populations, it has to be something innovative, even “revolutionary” compared with their own eating habits. In each case, however, the Mediterranean diet is “revolutionary” towards westernized and standard lifestyle and diet, which has created a new class of long-term epidemic, obesity itself.
The traditional Mediterranean or Cretan diet holds something “magical” and should not be treated as a “fashion trend” of our time. Is a necessary -but not yet sufficient condition- if we are to combat the ever-increasing levels of obesity and other chronic diseases? So, let us begin with the Mediterranean diet in order to move on to a more Mediterranean lifestyle. There is no need to look for our physical health and well-being in the Hollywood stars’ diets or in any other fad diet. Let’s just take a look at our recent past…It will show us the way!