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  • The Importance of the Traditional Diet of Crete (Greece)

    by Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D.,
    The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, Washington, D.C.

    Coronary heart disease mortality in southern Europe is lower than in northern Europe, with the population of Crete having the lowest. This has sparked interest in the Mediterranean diet, although it is important to recognize that there is not just one Mediterranean diet.

    Studies that have looked at poorly defined dietary patterns of people in southern and northern Europe have led to conclusions that saturated fat and cholesterol intake were the major dietary factors in the development of coronary heart disease.

    It is evident that there is a need to reconsider dietary recommendations for the prevention of coronary heart disease.

    Research over the last ten years has better defined the composition of the traditional, pre-1960 diet of Crete. In terms of the essential fatty acid and antioxidant content, the Cretan diet is similar to the Paleolithic diet on which humans evolved.

    Rich in legumes, fruits, vegetables (particularly wild plants) and edible fats—mostly olive oil—and low in meat, the diet supplies moderate amounts of fish and alcohol, mostly in the form of red wine. Legumes and wild plants are also excellent sources of folate, and octopus, the national appetizer, is rich in selenium, which is important in the prevention of cancer. The diet is also high in arginine, which increases nitric oxide which is beneficial in heart disease.

    Results from a study comparing an adaptation of the Cretan Mediterranean diet with the usually prescribed prudent diet—which is similar to the Step I American Heart Association Diet—showed that recurrent myocardial infarction, all cardiovascular events and cardiac and total deaths were significantly decreased by greater than 70 percent in the group consuming the Cretan Mediterranean diet. It appears that the favorable life expectancy of the people of Crete could be largely due to their diet, and thus, out of all the Mediterranean diets, it should be the model. #

    For more information, see Dr. Simopoulos’ book, The Omega Diet (HarperCollins, 1999), or for the scientific community, Mediterranean Diets (Volume 87, World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, Karger, 2000.

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