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Now, New Reasons to Go Greek

Eating Like a Cretan

Eating like a Cretan

For researchers studying the Mediterranean diet -- and for those of us who would like to follow its healthy principles -- there's only one problem amid all this good news: There is no single Mediterranean menu. The cuisines in this region of the world include everything from North African couscous and Greek spanikopita to pasta con tono served up in an Italian osteria.


The menu isn't the only thing that varies. Heart disease risk is also very different in different parts of the Mediterranean. In the famous Seven Countries study, the risk of dying of heart disease was more than twice as high among Italians as it was among the people of Crete. The inhabitants of that tiny Greek island, in fact, had the lowest risk of heart disease -- and lowest death rates -- found almost anywhere in the world.


If you want to choose the healthiest diet, in other words, eat like a Cretan. Fortunately, a new study by Greek scientists, published in the December 2000 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, makes that easier. The researchers have reconstructed a seven-day meal plan showing what the typical Cretan would have consumed in the 1960s, when the Seven Countries study was done. They've also compared it to what the typical teenagers of Crete are eating today.


The differences are telling. For a midmorning snack, the traditional inhabitants helped themselves to pears or melons. Today's youngsters are guzzling chocolate milk, cookies, and carbonated drinks.


For dinner, the residents of old Crete ate rice with spinach, yogurt, whole-wheat bread, stuffed tomatoes, lentils, and salad. Members of the new generation, adopting Western habits, are helping themselves to pizza, cola, hamburgers, and French fries. It's no surprise that obesity is becoming a growing problem in Greece, researchers say -- or that many epidemiologists expect to see an increase in heart disease risk.


That's discouraging, of course. But there's also good news. The basic principles of the traditional Mediterranean diet turn out to be simple and adaptable to almost any cuisine. Here are six simple ways to follow the heart-healthy example of those lucky inhabitants of sun-drenched Crete:


  • Eat at least one piece of fruit for breakfast or your midmorning snack.
  • Choose lunches and dinners that are loaded with vegetables, especially beans, lentils, and leafy greens like spinach, arugula, and kale.
  • Snack on fresh fruit, dried fruit, or nuts.
  • Go very easy on meat (it shows up only as a very special treat on the traditional Cretan menu).
  • Help yourself to fish.
  • Replace butter with olive oil or canola oil.


Not sure how to put it all together? There are dozens of terrific Mediterranean cookbooks that can help you turn those principles into some of the most delicious dishes the world has to offer.

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