Pizza, gyros, falafel, lasagna, rack of lamb, and long loaves of white bread: all these foods have become synonymous with what we call “Mediterranean.” We picture huge, three-hour feasts with multiple courses and endless bottles of wine. But over the past 50 years, Americans and others have altered the idea of Mediterranean fare, ramping up the meat, saturated fat, and calories at the expense of the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive oil, small amounts of dairy, and a glass or two of red wine. What was once a healthy and inexpensive way of eating back then is now associated with heavy, unhealthy dishes that contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
After World War II, a study led by Ancel Keys of the Mayo Foundation examined the diets and health of almost 13,000 middle-aged men in the US, Japan, Italy, Greece (including Crete), the Netherlands, Finland, and Yugoslavia. Remarkably, well-fed American men had higher rates of heart disease than those in countries whose diets had been restricted by the deprivations of war. It was the men of Crete, arguably the poorer people of the study, who enjoyed the best cardiovascular health. This was due to physical labor and their unique food pyramid.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is based on the dietary traditions of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy circa 1960 at a time when the rates of chronic disease among populations there were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest, even though medial services were limited.
Aside from eating a diet consisting mainly of fresh and homegrown foods instead of processed goods, other vital elements to the Mediterranean diet are daily exercise, sharing meals with others, and fostering a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.