Personal Health; Pass the Wine and Olive Oil, and Other Lessons From Crete

Landmark Study - Sanders DiPiero

OF 12,000 men in seven countries studied in 1960 by Dr. Ancel Keys, those least likely to develop heart disease lived on the Isle of Crete.

His co-investigator, Dr. Henry Blackburn, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, has written that the low-risk Cretan ''is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines,'' adding: ''He walks to work daily. His midday main meal is of eggplant with large mushrooms, crisp vegetables and country bread dipped in olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts or fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes the meal.''

The near-vegetarian Cretan diet and active life style have undergone significant changes in the last 30-odd years as the islanders have become more affluent, shifting from farming to business, from cooperation toward competitiveness, achievement and materialism. Cretans now eat less bread, potatoes, fruit and olive oil and more meat, fish and cheese. Dr. Marion Nestle, head of nutrition and food studies at New York University, said, ''The classic Mediterranean diet is becoming an endangered species.''

Among men in Crete, caloric intake is down but calories expended in physical activity have dropped even further. Cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body weight and abdominal obesity are up and so are death rates from heart disease, though they are still much lower than in this country.

What is the lesson to be learned from Crete, past and present, as well as from all the countries along the Mediterranean, where rates of coronary heart disease and many common cancers are still among the lowest in the Western world? Is the Mediterranean diet, as it is currently being translated for American audiences in popular cookbooks and magazine articles, as healthful as claimed? Should Americans be drinking lots of wine and dousing their food in olive oil? Must the diet derive less than 30 percent of calories from fat to be a healthy one?

A Plant-Based Diet

Throughout this decade, public health experts have been urging Americans to consume a diet that leans heavily on plant-based foods: 9 to 11 servings a day of bread and other grain foods and 5 to 9 servings a day of fruits and vegetables. We are as yet nowhere near that, with grains hovering at five servings and fruits and vegetables at three or four servings daily. The American diet is currently top-heavy with unhealthy fats, sweets and meats.


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