In the Second World War, Greece suffered a higher percentage of civilian casulties than any other country; in 1941-42 up to half a million people starved to death, and some 25,000 were killed in the resistance, often in the horrific reprisals taken by the Nazis. Crete, in particular, saw some of the fiercest resistance and suffered some of the worst deprivations, yet in 1947, when researchers for the Rockefeller Foundation arrived on the island to study the health of the population, they were astonished. In spite of the privations of the war and their ‘primitive’ life, men in their 90s were still climbing mountains.
In 1956, the Foundation launched a 15-year study in seven countries (Japan, Finland, Yugoslavia, the USA, Holland, Italy, and the Greek islands of Corfu and Crete) to compare diet and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Some 700 men living in rural Crete took part, and if health were a race, they lapped the competition several times over; the differences between in their death rates, even compared to Corfu, were striking. And this in fact that the Cretans consumed three times as much fat as the Americans, and as much as fat-gobbling Finns, who did the worst; in fact, the only Cretan who died of coronary disease during the 15 years of the study was a butcher.
The Cretan secret? Popeye’s own sweetheart: olive oil . Nearly all their fat comes from it, to the tune of 34.6 litres per capita a year, more than anyone, twice as much as the average Greek, an ocean next to the mere drop (.29 litres) consumed per capita in Britain. The rest of the diet, on this oily base is a ‘pyramid’, with cereals (wholemeal wheat, barley and rye, usually in bread or rusks) forming the next tier, followed by pulses, fresh vegetables, greens (Popeye territory here) and fruit, lots of fruit, four times as much as other Mediterranean peoples. Cheese, eggs, and meat are next, but in moderation by European standards, followed by fish once or twice a week. Nor would Cretans ever think of sitting down to eat without glass or two of wine.
Does it really work? When the Seven Country researchers returned for a final follow up in 1991, they found fifty per cent of the Cretans were alive and well. All the Finns were dead.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls