Ever since the legendary Dr. Ansel Keyes studied the differences between various cultures, their diets, and morbidity/mortality rates (starting in the 1950’s and continuing into the 1970’s), there has been a fascination with “traditional” diets – usually the diets of rural peoples from various parts of the world. Whether it is the now-famous Cretans, the Okinawans, or even Mexicans, one thing is clear: People eating traditional rural diets based primarily on plants, and only occasional animal protein, typically have less of the common modern diet-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. For Western fat-cats like myself, most of the fascination has been with what and how these people ate, hoping of course to integrate some element from their regime into our own fountain of longevity and health.
The Cretan diet was particularly interesting to me since it was close enough to the traditions I grew up with that I felt I could emulate it with fair ease. It is also a way of eating that has been heavily documented by scientists who continue to try and unravel its secrets (at the same time that the diet itself is unraveling due to pressures to conform to a more affluent European diet in Crete!).
So I embarked on the Cretan Plan, guided by several excellent tomes on the subject that included detailed recipes, sources, etc. It was a most pleasant experience as I threw myself into the task of consuming olive oil with abandon, red wine with every meal, and copious quantities of vegetables and especially “horta” – wild bitter greens such as dandelions and amaranth. Calories? Who cares? The food was not only delicious, but the promise of its health benefits removed all sense of guilt about quantities and calories….my Greek traditions would save me from the pollution of modern Western food!
The first 20 pounds came on almost imperceptibly…perhaps because it only took about 30 days, it was so quick I hardly noticed. As the second 20 began to accumulate, I grew alarmed. What could I be doing wrong? I asked my Cretan business partner, Angelo, what the problem could be. He laughed. He had spent lots of time in rural Crete with his now-90-something grandparents and had observed how they lived day-to-day.
“You’ve got to understand” he said, “that these people actually work real hard”. “They don’t sit at a desk and in a car all day”. He continued: “Even to this day, my grandfather gets up at 5 AM, knocks back a cup of wine and a small glass of olive oil, and heads off on a five kilometer hike to his fields, where he does hard-labor for the next 6-8 hours, with a siesta in between”. “My grandmother gets up around the same time, does her housework, prepares lunch, and brings it to him! “She works by his side for a few hours and then they both walk home at the end of the day. This happens six days a week, year-round, rain or shine”.
The epiphany was like a thunderclap and my ears rung with his words. Of course these people didn’t need multivitamins and other supplements….they were able to get all their requirements because of the vast amounts of food they could eat with impunity – the result of burning so many calories from working physically hard. If a sedentary lard-belly like myself tried to eat like them without also emulating their physical activity, he would soon be dragged back into the water by Greenpeace!
That’s the secret of traditional diets! These peoples work physically hard, which enables them to consume vast quantities of food, which in turn makes it possible for them to extract extraordinary amounts of various nutirients from their food, which is what keeps them healthy. Duhhhhh!