The Greek diet, with Crete as its most famous paradigm, is the quintessential Mediterranean diet, based mainly on vegetables and olive oil, although so many of its other elements of have also come under scientific scrutiny and have been found to be beneficial to health. Among them: snails, the immense variety of wild greens, Greek honey, specific Greek cheeses made not from cow’s milk but from sheep’s and goat’s milk, wine, tsikoudia (tsipouro), or eau de vie, which is thought to spur metabolism.
The Mediterranean diet, in fact the Greek diet (Cretan diet) ultimately is really about the region’s lifestyle, where meals are not only inherently healthful but also social occasions for family and friends to gather. There is little stress and much joy in eating the way a traditional Greek does. All these things combined make for what is now coined the Mediterranean Diet.
The Greek Diet, and specifically the Cretan Diet, has become synonymous with the Mediterranean Diet, renowned as one of the world’s most healthful. Crete was one of the original places observed in the now famous Seven-Countries Study begun by Dr. Ancel Keys in the late 1950s to document the rate of heart disease among several different populations.
In 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation arrived in Crete to offer humanitarian assistance to the war-ravaged islanders. It documented the islanders’ meager diet, then a subsistence regimen of wild greens, fruits, legumes, bread and barley rusks, little protein and plenty of olive oil. While the Rockefeller Foundation was appalled at what seemed like the diet of utter despair, they were equally surprised to notice that the islanders were uncannily healthy. Under Greek diet (Cretan Diet) there was no malnutrition on Crete after those war-torn years.
At around the same time in Naples, a young cardiologist named Ancel Keys was puzzled at how there wasn’t one cardiac patient in the entire hospital he had served in during the War. Keys, realizing that disease and diet must somehow be related, initiated a study of cardiovascular disease and lifestyle seven very different countries: Italy, Holland, Yugoslavia, Finland, the U.S., Japan and Greece. What he discovered was that while the Cretans consumed an inordinate amount of fat (on a par with the meat-eating Fins), they still had no heart disease. Unlike the Fins, who got most of their fat (saturated) from meat and animal products, the Cretan peasants got most of theirs (unsaturated) from olive oil. The Cretan diet –in fact a great part of Greek diet – in the 1950s consisted of carbohydrates (mainly bread and barley rusks), wild greens (upwards of 80 different varieties), other vegetables, fruits, and olive oil. There was virtually no cheese in the diet as cheese was a commodity to be made and sold; and, there was almost no meat. By the late 1950s, Keys had assessed that the Cretan diet was in fact one of the healthiest in the world.