Olive oil is the most basic ingredient of the Cretan Nutrition and the sole source of fatty acids.
Traditional Cretan Nutrition has the following characteristics:
- Plenty natural fibers (pulses, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, seeds).
- Minimum processed products.
- Minimum consumption of bread and alcohol.
- Dairy products (mainly cheese and yogurt) on an everyday basis and at small to medium quantities.
- Fish and poultry at small to medium quantities.
- Red meat 2 times per month.
- Olive oil, as the main and only source of fat for this diet.
- Usually, dinner is accompanied by a glass of red wine.
Various ecological, socioeconomic, cultural and religious factors have contributed to the formation of this unique nutrition model, the Cretan nutrition.
The model of the Mediterranean diet, which has been defined by health and nutrition scientists and which has been at the center of intense scientific search over the last years, was based on the nutrition of Crete in 1960. The term “Mediterranean diet”, in the way in which it is used today, was in fact introduced by nutrition scientists in order to describe the nutrition in Crete, as well as those in other areas of the Mediterranean, which shares some common characteristics, during the 1950s and the 1960s. Given that olive oil was the basic source of fat in the Cretans’ nutrition, the term “Mediterranean diet” in fact describes the nutritional model that was predominant in the areas of the Mediterranean, where olive trees were traditionally cultivated.
The Seven Counties Study of 1960 by American Ancel Keys
The association of the diet of the residents of Crete with health became widely known later in time, through the Seven Countries Study. This study was started shortly before 1960 by American Ancel Keys and his associates and was inspired by the impressively low mortality and cardiovascular diseases percentages in the area. The particular nutritional habits that characterized this area were studied, in order to explain the lower frequency of coronary diseases and cancer, as well as the lower mortality rates from all causes that were found in the population of Crete, in relation to the countries selected by the researchers. According to data from the United Nations, no other area of the Mediterranean had such low mortality levels as Crete, both before and after the Second World War.
Approximately 13,000 men in total participated to the study, who were selected from sixteen different areas of 7 countries (Finland, The Netherlands, Japan, USA, Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece), in order to investigate the ambiguous relationship between nutrition and the emergence of cardiovascular diseases.
The comparisons among the different populations showed that the population of Crete had the best health condition and the lower mortality percentages from coronary diseases and cancer, in relation to all the other populations studied. After 20 years of observation, the Cretans had the lower death rates from all causes, whereas after 25 years of observation deaths from coronary diseases in Crete were impressively lower than the deaths observed in the populations of the USA and North Europe, but even in relation to the deaths observed in other areas of South Europe, such as Italy, Yugoslavia, and Corfu.
The "Lyon Heart" study
After the Seven Countries Study, French researchers Serge Renaud and Michel de Longeril showed in the Lyon Heart Study that the administration of a Cretan-type diet to patients who had suffered an acute myocardial infarction reduced the death percentage in 27 months after the incident by 70%, in comparison to the administration of the diet recommended by the American Heart Association. Furthermore, after 4 years the Cretan-type diet was associated with the decrease in the total death percentage by 56% and the decrease in cancer by 61%.
The role of fast in the Cretan nutrition
The fact that the Cretans were following the fasts prescribed by the Greek Orthodox Church to a great extent during the period of the Seven Countries Study seems to have also contributed to the low consumption of foods of animal origin, which was observed in Crete during that time. During the fast periods (no consumption of meat and dairy products), animal products were stored, in order to be consumed during non-fast periods. Apart from its contribution to better health, this tradition was also significant to the ecological and the environmental balance. The Orthodox Christian tradition defines various periods of fast, which amount to 180-200 days in total throughout the year. Consequently, this is a big period of time, which significantly contributed to the total nutrition and detoxification of the organism.