Greek peasants' diet holds key to a healthy life

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

The simple diet followed by Greek peasants is the key to a long and healthy life and may protect against known health hazards such as smoking and lack of medical care, according to a study.

The Greek variant of the Mediterranean diet - which was first identified as beneficial to health more than 20 years ago - combines the best of current scientific knowledge on healthy eating.

But Dimitrios Trichopoulos, from the Harvard School of Public Health, who analysed the diet of 182 Greek villagers aged 70 and over, says that it was the "overall dietary pattern" which explained their longevity and general good health.

Their diet included wholegrain bread, potatoes and other cereals.

They ate cooked meals and soups, and salads rich in olive oil and accompanied by beans, lentils and vegetables were consumed in sizeable portions. Fresh fruit was a staple.

Milk intake was low but cheese and yoghurt was high. Feta cheese was added to salads and vegetable stews.

Meat was regarded as too expensive by most villagers, who preferred fish.

According to the report, in the British Medical Journal, wine was consumed in moderation and almost always to accompany food. None of the pensioners was a heavy drinker: no man drank more than seven and no woman more than two glasses of wine a day.

During the six-year study, 53 people died - 30 (57 per cent) of them men - and 17 (32 per cent) of them smokers. Of the 129 survivors, 61 (47 per cent) were men and 30 (23 per cent) were smokers.

Analysis of the individual diets showed that for those who ate more of the components of the traditional Greek diet, there was a 17 per cent reduction in mortality.

Their diet - low in saturated (animal fats), high in mono- unsaturated fats, high in complex carbohydrates (from grains and legumes) and high in fibre (fruits and vegetables) - was naturally rich in protective antioxidant vitamins A, C, E, beta-carotene, important minerals and other chemicals, like polyphenols and anthocyanines, associated with good health.

This may explain the paradox that people living in rural areas of European Mediterranean countries smoke heavily and have poor access to medical care, but generally survive to a good age.