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In Search of the True Mediterranean Diet

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Corfu Bay: Practically every square yard of arable land is covered with olive trees or grapevines

As someone who's worked in the health field for most of my life, I get to hear about all sorts of fad diets. Many of these come and go and have little basis in the long view history of the dietary habits of humans. One recent contender in the healthful diet arena is the so-called "Mediterranean Diet," based on the culinary traditions of countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

On a recent visit to the Aegean Greek island of Corfu, I was able to learn firsthand about the much-hyped Mediterranean diet regarded by many as the most healthful dietary regime.

Driving around Corfu with Spiros

The way I learned about the local customs was to hire a driver whose cab was parked ready and waiting near the dock where our boat was moored for the day's shore excursion. My driver's name was Spiros, a name that is ubiquitous on Corfu because the island's patron saint is St. Spiros. I learned that every family had to have at least one son named Spiros.

In Greece, Spiros told me, no one ever celebrates birthdays; instead, they celebrate their saint's day. This means that December 12, the feast day of St. Spiros, is an occasion throughout all the villages of Corfu for feasting and celebration.

So far as health and longevity is concerned, aside from the health benefits of the climate, air and wonderfully wholesome diet in Greece, not keeping track of one's birthdays at least has the potential of adding years to one's lifespan without one even knowing it.

Olives

As Spiros drove me around to the various villages, monasteries and high vantage points of the island, the first thing to deeply impress me was the importance of the olive in the lives of Mediterranean peoples. Considered the oldest cultivated tree, it spread from Syrian and Palestinian origins throughout the Mediterranean Basin approximately 5000 years ago. The olive (Olea europaea) tree has served as the life blood of the people for millennia. 

On Corfu, practically every square yard of arable land is taken up with olive trees or grapevines (the two major crops of Italy and Greece). Spiros first pointed out how the black olives are the ones that are tree ripened and are allowed to fall to the ground. These are either picked by hand but most commonly there is a plastic net spread under each tree to pick them up after they fall which is usually in late fall. Green olives are picked green off the tree. These are soaked and cured in brine for several weeks leach out their bitterness.

As we drove around I saw some extraordinarily, large, gnarled trees interspersed with young ones. Spiros mentioned how it takes at least 10 years for a tree to bear fruit and that some of the oldest trees on the island date back over 700 years. Considering how plants that seem to take longest to mature usually are the richest in nutrients, the olive tree and the oil extracted from its fruits are a highly nutritious food. According to Spiros, after the oil is extracted, it sits in vats with the clearest oil being at the top. It is this clear oil from the first pressing which is sold as virgin or pure.

Olives contains many known vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants. According to Olive Oil Source, olives contain "55.5% oleic acid, 0.9% linoleic acid, a polyunsaturate that lowers cholesterol and reduces platelet aggregation and linoleic acid at 0-1.5%."

Linoleic and linolenic essential fatty acids and the antioxidants found in olives have special qualities that promote energy, health, brain function and generally retard the aging process. All of this makes a good case for the use of olives and olive oil being a key nutrient for the longevity and vigor of Mediterranean people.

Olive mash

I also learned that apart from its use as food, the mash (shown above), which is the residue left after the olives have been crushed, is saved and burned as fuel for cooking and to heat the home during cold winter evenings. Still another fine use is in the making of soap.

Retsina: Wine for breakfast?

According to Spiros, a typical Greek breakfast consists of bread (fresh, home-baked by his mother being the best), olive oil and olives. Fresh eggs are included occasionally. He said that those performing heavy manual labor requiring extra endurance and strength consume an entire liter of retsina wine in the morning as well. Now I know that anyone looking into the Mediterranean diet might never consider beginning the day with a quart of wine, especially the Greek retsina with its strong resinous flavor from pine pitch, which is at best an acquired taste.

However, realizing that in Greece making of retsina wine dates back 2,000 years I thought about the many other traditional cultures that integrate various pitch and resins as medicine such as the use of myrrh in the Middle East and traditional Chinese medicine, guggul in East Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and pine pitch by Appalachian people. In all of these traditions, indigestible resins are refined and taken internally in small measured amounts for detoxification, anti-inflammation and to counteract arthritic and rheumatic conditions.

Still, I wondered how the average person would fare beginning each morning with a quart of wine? Spiros assured me that while he didn't follow that practice, those whom he knew who did do not get intoxicated. Oh well, I considered, this is just another application of the Hippocratic dictum of "making one's food one's medicine."

Sardines

Spiros said that upon turning 50, he decided to slow down, take life easier and not work so hard. Usually during the 10 months of tourist season he drives a cab in the morning and fishes in the afternoon. Now I knew of the importance of olives, olive oil, fresh vegetables fruits, goat cheese and such but I wondered about protein and the important role that fish holds in a typical Mediterranean diet. Spiros said he usually nets sardines for his 'catch of the day.' It turns out that one of the ways Mediterranean people avoid the risk of heavy metal contamination is to mostly feed on the small, fast growing fish close to the surface of the ocean since these do not live long enough to have accumulated heavy metals.

Sardines and other small fish, according to Spiros, are a staple, served daily in many ways for lunch and dinner.

Many years ago, the oldest man in the US (he lived in Florida) was asked about his diet and he replied that it consisted largely of sardines. One source I read described them as "little supermen" containing practically everything a body needs in terms of nutritional value with substances that are proven to benefit the skin, joints, memory and boost energy.

Sardines are naturally high in omega 3 fatty acids, which is the long chain variety of fatty acid that can only be found in seafood but not vegetables and fruit. They have high levels of Coenzyme Q10, a powerful antioxidant known to increase vitality and promote a strong immune system. In addition because the small bones are also consumed, they are high in calcium and vitamin D. On Corfu and throughout the Mediterranean, these are prepared and served in many ways.

Figs, goat cheese and vegetables

One of the most abundant fruits in the region is the fig (Ficus carica). Like practically every other food from the area near to the cradle of civilization, the fig, which is classified as both a deciduous shrub or small tree, is one of the first plants ever cultivated by humans. On Corfu, I think the fig is more of a shrub than a tree as I saw them growing wild everywhere, some spread out to cover the area of half a city block. The fig is high in calcium, fiber and powerful antioxidants. These are also prepared and eaten in many ways.

Cheese is also a supplemental part of the diet on Corfu. A wide variety of cheeses are eaten, but goat cheese is favored. The added nutritional benefit of goat cheese and other goat dairy products is well known. Goats graze more widely than cattle and the variety of weeds, herbs, shrubs and leaves that they consume adds greatly to the nutritional value of their milk. In addition, the milk of small animals such as goats and sheep is more like human milk, with smaller and more digestible fat globules than cow's milk. This makes goat milk far safer and obviously more beneficial for those who are allergic to (cow's) milk.

Last but not least, there is a healthy appreciation for vegetables throughout Mediterranean coastal regions. Spiros pointed out the small vegetable gardens adjoining almost every home we passed as we drove around Corfu. He said that every household in his village grows a wide variety of their favorite vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, assorted leafy greens and root vegetables, as well as a variety of legumes and beans. At one point, we spotted a man harvesting what looked like a common roadside weed. Spiros pulled over and asked the man for a sprig of what he was picking. It was a wonderfully fragrant sprig of wild oregano, which along with many of the other commonly used Mediterranean spices such as rosemary, thyme and marjoram, are generously incorporated into the diet both for their flavor and their well known medicinal virtues.

Greeks do not seem to consume as much pasta as Italians. However, Spiros said they do eat some occasionally.

My short visit to Corfu gave me a firsthand appreciation for the many elements, familiar and unfamiliar, that comprise the true Mediterranean diet. Occasionally adding just a few elements to one's own diet,  such as olive oil, more seafood (especially the more common and abundant smaller fish), goat dairy products, vegetables of all types, modest portions of fruity red wine, and yes, even some al dente pasta, shouldn't be too hard for most of us who wish to gain the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. All we may simply have to do is change the emphasis we place on the use of some of these commonly available foods.

 

What about pasta?

Being myself of Southern Italian descent, I noticed that the one thing most people who recommend the Mediterranean diet never seem to mention is that Italian staple, pasta.

As a boy I watched my two Sicilian step-grandparents eat pasta literally three times a day. Yes, even for breakfast (for this it was plain and dressed only with olive oil). 

Recently, Andrew Weil wrote an article entitled "Bringing the Pasta Back to the Table." In defense of pasta, Weil refers to the fact that most traditional Italians prefer eating their pasta firm, known as al dente (meaning 'to the tooth'). Prepared and eaten in this way instead of overcooked and soft, the starches convert to glucose much more slowly. This chewier pasta does not cause the heavy insulin spike that leaves one feeling heavy, lethargic and tired. Instead, it is actually more filling and less fattening.

I don't know when Italians learned to prefer refined and enriched semolina wheat flour as opposed to the grittier whole wheat pasta but many think that the whole wheat pastas currently available are much improved over those of previous decades with the added benefit of whole grain fiber.

Besides pasta, I remember my grandparents eating a lot of other things that might not exactly fit into today's well-known Mediterranean diet. For example, such things as tripe and certain organ meats were enough to make me gag. Fulfilling at least the minimum requirements for Catholics, they substituted fish for red meat on Fridays. They did eat lots of vegetables, which is aligned with the modern idea of the Mediterranean diet. 

I remember that each spring, when the yellow-flowered mustard would begin to bloom in the nearby commercial orchards, my grandparents eagerly filled large paper grocery bags with verduti (meaning 'greens', specifically mustard greens). These would be boiled and taken as a soup-tea to 'purify the blood,' I was told. Years later, I would come to preach, as I do now, that this practice of tanking up on fresh spring greens in season is a wonderful health practice conforming to the age old Hippocratic dictum of "Let your medicine be your food and your food, your medicine."

Given my traditional Italian upbringing, when people refer to the Mediterranean diet assuming it to be high in vegetables and seafood (which it is), I wonder if they realize the amount of refined starches in the form of pasta, delicious bread, and incredible desserts, including gelato, that are at least also a part of the diet of southern Italians.

The Noble Olive

In ancient Greece, the olive tree was regarded as sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, skill and warfare. Athena was worshipped at Olympia, the site of the first Olympic games (around 776 B.C.). The only thing bestowed on the victorious champions during the early games was an olive-leafed wreath.

During the period of the games, which occurred every four years, there was an agreed upon truce and suspension of all warfare throughout the Greek empire to allow the participants safe passage to and from the site of the games. Thus, the olive leaf has become the universal symbol of peace with numerous citations from both biblical and Islamic sources regarding its practical and symbolic significance:

And the dove came back to him in the evening and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. (Genesis 8:11)

~

The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us'. But the olive tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my fatness, by which gods and men are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' (Judges 9:8-9)

~

Allah is the Light of the heavens, and the earth; a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern or western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not - light upon light... (Surat ul Nur 24:35).

 

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