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THE CRETAN DIET

Considerable media attention is given these days to the importance of diet in the general well being of the human condition, and avoiding the increasingly prevalent diseases of cancer and coronary problems. The Mediterranean diet has long been propounded as an ideal, but the Cretan diet specifically has been scientifically proven to be better at increasing longevity and reducing risk of heart disease and occurrence of cancers.
The American doctor Anzel Keys conducted a study, beginning in 1956 of 12,763 men between the ages of 40 and 59 to determine the effect of diet on health. These men came from 7 countries divided into 16 sub-groups with a variety of cultures and habits. The countries chosen were Italy, Spain, Finland, Yugoslavia, the U.S.A., Holland and Greece, with Greece being represented by Corfu and Crete. The results were conclusive and generally in line with current accepted wisdom. Crete was something of a surprise however, being a clear winner in the good health stakes, beating other Mediterranean countries and even Corfu by some margin. Heart related illness was almost unheard of in Crete and occurrence of cancer was the lowest of the group.

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The coronary death rate per 100,000 of capita in Crete over a 10 year period was 9. This compared to 149 for Corfu and 466 for Finland, the country with the highest figure. Clearly a very conclusive outcome. A similar study by the World Health Organisation in 1987 gave very similar results. There was an overall slight improvement generally, but the order of the “league table” remained the same.

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French professor Serge Renaud in a later study used the Cretan diet as a preventative treatment for patients already suffering from heart disease. Taking a group of patients whom had already suffered a heart attack, he split them into two groups. One group followed the Cretan diet, whilst the other followed a low fat diet recommended by the American Cardiological Society. A diet widely accepted as the benchmark by doctors around the world at the time. Over the period of the experiment there were 28 fatalities. Of those only 8 were following the Cretan diet, again a significant finding, and one which removed genetics and other criteria from the equation.
So what exactly is this miracle diet that is the scourge of pension providers, and how can we secure a telegram from the queen I hear you ask. Well unfortunately if you were thinking of decamping to the nearest Cretan restaurant, that isn’t going to cut it. Though there are many excellent Cretan restaurants serving authentic dishes, their menus are not representative of the day to day diet observed during the Anzel Keys and other studies. Though meat is not precluded, very little of it is eaten. The Cretan diet is in essence a vegetarian one.  
Meat was traditionally eaten on feast days and special occasions, more recently it has become a regular part of the Sunday meal. The reasons for this are obviously in part  socio-economic, but also religious observance required a good deal of fasting from meat, dairy products and eggs.  
Fish is eaten in similarly small quantities, but one of the surprising aspects of this diet is fat intake. Cretans eat almost three times as much fat as the Americans and one and a half times as much as the rest of the Mediterranean. The difference being that the vast bulk of this fat is in the form of olive oil, with very little animal fat or seed oil consumed. It is also largely eaten in a raw state on salads and rusks, and with bread.
If you are going to try this at home it is worth pointing out that the olive oil considered by these surveys is extra virgin olive oil. Processed olive oil apparently looses certain nutritional components as part of its processing.
The other major difference is fruit consumption. Cretans eat twice as much fruit as their nearest contender, the Americans. ( probably without smothering it with sugar, though this is just cynical speculation on my part)
Beyond this the diet comprises of pulses and vegetables in large amounts, and substantial quantities of wholemeal bread and rusks.
That then is the Cretan diet, the path to longevity and good health, though the balance is somewhat redressed by the fact that they are such bloody terrible drivers.
The tradional Cretan diet was borne out of austerity. As increasing affluence and pervading western influences begin to intrude on what until fairly recently was a relatively isolated culture it is unlikely now that the tradional Cretan diet of the Anzel Keys study has many adherents. Interestingly, though not the subject of a detailed survey, figures for coronory death and occurence of cancer in Great Britain during the years of world war two rationing, also showed a marked downturn.