The Mediterranean Diet -- A First-hand Look
Updated: May 16, 2018
I just returned from 8 days in beautiful Crete, and it's worth talking about the fabled Mediterranean diet and its purported health benefits. Much of the research and discussion about the diet has focused on the fresh fish and olive oil, as well as locally harvested vegetables and wild greens. Before I set off for Europe, I read The Jungle Effect by Dr. Daphne Miller, which examines "cold spots" around the world, with notably low instances of certain modern, chronic diseases. Dr. Miller's hypothesis is that there is an element to the native cuisine that offers a protective benefit -- such as the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the Icelandic diet, which produces notably low rates of anxiety and depression. Crete represents a "cold spot" for heart disease, and has been the subject of much interest in recent years.
So it was that I went to Crete with food on the brain. And I found the Cretan cuisine quite delicious, but also fairly similar to the larger Greek-style diet. The seafood was marvelously fresh, with the complex and subtle flavor of the sea. There was a surprising absence of rice or grains, which you do find in other Greek cuisines. Every meal was accompanied by a rich dark bread, and rusks are eaten often -- rusks are a wonderful, twice baked barley crouton that are found in salads and in a kind of Bruschetta snack.
I would almost say that the hallmark of Cretan food is the simplicity -- a meal will often be a whole fish, flavored with prodigious amounts of olive oil and fresh oregano, with a side of hora (the hand-picked wild greens), and a basket of bread. Salads in Crete consist of finely chopped arugula and Romaine lettuce (no spring mix in sight!) with chunky ripe tomatoes and the most wonderful, delicate feta. Interestingly, there is a striking lack of desserts in Crete. There are certainly Greek-style sweets such as baklava and similar confections, but these are often eaten earlier in the day with strong, dark coffee. After-dinner fruit seems like a typical treat.
I was hoping to find some magic answer that dwells within the Mediterranean diet, but it seems more likely that the protective aspects of the Cretan diet lie within the island lifestyle. There's still a lot of physical work done in Crete, and older Cretans could be seen walking along the narrow, winding roads. It is also typical to dine in large groups, and spend a few hours over dinner. It is certainly true that Americans do WAY too eating on the run! But even more, I think we might consider the health benefits of a long, luscious yearly vacation, to see the world and experience how others live and eat. That's some health advice that I can get behind!