What We Can Learn From The Mediterranean Diet

What We Can Learn From The Mediterranean Diet

We’ve all heard about how healthy the Mediterranean Diet is, but besides lots of fish and olive oil, what actually makes it so healthy? Spending the last month in Greece, we found ourselves in real food heaven and discovered some of the real secrets behind this primal diet.

 

 

 

 

What We Can Learn From The Mediterranean Diet

Traditional, organic food is a matter of national pride

The Greeks are extremely proud of their cuisine, and their cultural knowledge and passion for fresh, local and traditionally made foods is astounding.

The first day we were in Greece, both our young café waiter and middle-aged taxi driver spoke passionately about how foods used to be grown and prepared and how the modern way was inferior and they must not lose their food traditions. And we hadn’t even said anything to provoke these rants! Many people showed their disgust of pesticides and other chemicals used in farming, bewildered why anyone would ‘ruin’ the food and water supply with such things.

Organic is easy to find in Greece
Organic is easy to find in Greece

The food is fresh, local and wild

And it didn’t stop there. Restaurant menus boast “village” sausage, which is made fresh from local pigs (with no fillers – just meat, herbs and spices). An asterisk next to a menu item means it has been frozen, and the waiters often confirm this apologetically, “Sorry, that one we don’t have fresh. You still want?”

Every village, town and city proudly sells its own local olive oil, honey, herbs, salt, dairy products, meat and/or produce. Even the wine and spirits are touted as special ones from the local region.

Local food is king in Greece
Local food is king in Greece

Local food is king in Greece

Bee boxes dot the hillsides, where the bees create various types of honey from different plants and trees. The honey is never processed or pasteurised, and for some reason it is noticeably less sweet and more delicious than what we are used to.

Local staples like olives, nuts, beans, yogurt, and cheese are often unpackaged in the shops, sitting in bulk ready for customers to order by the kilo. It’s only been in the past 10 years or so that foods have started to line the shelves pre-packaged.

Fresh herbs for Greek cooking
Pre-packaged foods are only a recent innovation in Greece.

Food grows everywhere. We ate apricots, plums, figs and nectarines off the trees. Tomato plants covered in juicy fruit sprout up through cracks in the sidewalk. Every terrace, patio, balcony, rooftop and carport is covered not with a roof, but a carpet of vine leaves with bunches of grapes hanging down for plucking and eating. Wild greens, known as horta, are picked from random bushes on the way home, then boiled and eaten for their vast nutritional benefits.

The famous Greek salad of olives, onion, cucumber and tomato is always cut fresh to order, right before it’s eaten. This maintains high nutritional content AND taste. Salad, along with most other foods, is dressed simply in fresh dried oregano, sometimes a splash of wine vinegar (from all those grapes), and of course olive oil.

Not all olive oil is created equal

Olive oil is the most famous component of the Mediterranean Diet, and in Greece it is of the highest quality and taste. Unrefined, or extra virgin, is expected as the norm, and the beautiful flavour is like nothing we’d ever had in other countries. This is probably due to the freshness.

You see, olive trees grow like weeds all over the country, ensuring a plentiful supply of fresh olives. People we stayed with boasted how many olive trees they had on their land, and how in season, they pick their olives and take it to the local press to make their own oil.

Fermented & Raw Dairy

The other famous topping on the Greek Salad is a thick slice of feta cheese, usually made the traditional way from sheep and/or goat’s milk. Unprocessed cheeses are a staple food in Greece, displayed in huge rounds and cut to order, and eaten with other foods or used as a common ingredient in various dishes.

Greek Yoghurt is also made from these animal’s milk, and rarely pasteurised, unlike the greek yoghurt imitations around the world. The taste is incomparable, and as the Greek’s main fermented food eaten with most meals, its rawness ensures a wealth of probiotics.

Greek goat and sheep dairy is fresh and often unpasteurised
Greek goat and sheep dairy is fresh and often unpasteurised
Greek goat and sheep dairy is fresh and often unpasteurised
Local animals’ meat, eggs and dairy feature on Greek menus

Meat is not the main event, Seafood is not what you think

I think we can learn a lot from the Greek approach to eating animal foods. First of all, local is king, so you will rarely find beef dishes on all those Greek Islands where there are no cows. Pork, goat, chicken and rabbit dishes are common, as these are usual ‘backyard animals’ which are raised and eaten locally, instead of factory farmed.

Snails are another, lesser known animal food staple of the Mediterranean diet, which you can find wild everywhere, so you know they are fresh. Some diet experts believe this is one of the key components to long, healthy lives in the Mediterranean, as snails are highly nutritious.

Snails are a nutritious part of the Mediterranean diet
Snails are a nutritious, lesser-known part of the Mediterranean diet

Secondly, meat is traditionally an addition to the mainly salad and vegetable dishes, instead of the other way around. And meat is mostly reserved for wintertime meals, when there is not as much fresh produce to eat. In the summer, fruit and vegetables are traditionally the focus, with some fish or a bit of meat sometimes.

And of course there’s plenty of seafood, a famous component of their healthful diet, especially in a country with so many islands and coastline. But instead of farmed salmon and white fish filets like we eat in America and Australia, Greek menus feature plenty of octopus, squid, whole local wild fish, and tiny fish like sardines, which are less toxic and full of nutritious oils.

Octopus is widely consumed in Greece
Octopus is widely consumed in Greece

What about dessert?

It’s true that Greek women pride themselves on their baking skills, and Greek bakeries are plentiful, full of various pastries, cookies, chocolates, ice creams and even candies. If you’ve ever had the famous baklava, you know how sweet Greek deserts can be, the filo dough dripping with honey and sugar syrup.

However, it seems that the Greeks don’t eat a huge amount of desserts. Like the French approach, they savour and appreciate these traditional sweets in moderation, never overdoing it.

Dessert after a meal, especially in the spring and summer, is usually fresh fruit. At almost every restaurant we went to, we were served a free plate of watermelon or honeydew as soon as we asked for the bill.

Even dessert can be healthier when traditionally made, as in much of Greece
Even dessert can be healthier when traditionally made, as in much of Greece

So are the Greeks really healthy?

However, we were still bewildered by the alarming amount of fully-stocked bakeries and the amount of bread being eaten. Though the Greek people rank high on the list for longest life-span, the average Greek body shape didn’t seem to reflect these tenants of the Mediterranean Diet and some of the lifestyle habits are far from what we’d consider healthy.

And so we explore smoking, drinking, coffee and other favourite Greek pastimes in our next article, Contradictions of the Mediterranean Diet & Lifestyle, and discover that it’s when we look beyond diet, that we can truly be healthy.

This Greek Island Alkaline Water Believed to Prolong Lives

Alkaline Water - Greek Island

Will drinking better quality water improve your quality and length of life? Join Brad and his client and good mate John on Kythera Island in Greece and learn about the high quality water that the local island people drink that is attributed the high life expectancies of the population. This water most certainly has a high ‘Total Dissolved Solids’ count and is extremely good for you! John’s friends in the area had the water tested to show how highly mineralised and alkaline the water is. Let’s see what John has to say about it.


 
Brad:
Hey Primal people! It’s Brad here. I’m traveling with the family and right now. We are in Greece. We’re on an island called Kythera, which is south of the mainland, the Peloponnese area of Greece. Just above Crete. It’s one of the bigger islands of Greece not visited as much by tourists, but wow, it’s a pretty Primal place to be. I’m currently here now with my client and good mate John Wilson, who you will be hearing from in a sec, as his family is from this area.

You would have always heard Bex and I mentioning the Primal 6 in our newsletters and on social networking about the third most important  Primal 6 step known as ‘Water’. You would have also seen pictures of our Primal mascot drinking water from a waterfall, the way we used to drink it (instead of a tap or plastic bottle). Well as you can see here, this is the San Pelligrino water of Kythera!

Caveman Drinking Water
Our Primal mascot getting his water needs the way we used to… from rivers, streams and waterfalls.

The importance of this lies in the fact that the average life expectancy of Kythera is in the mid 90’s! This water tastes amazing too. It’s now time to hear from John about the water and the island, and why this is so important to the population of Kythera.

So John, why do you make the effort of coming down here to drink this water instead of the town water / tap water?

John:
Well Brad, there is nothing wrong with the tap water. The water is actually of reasonable quality, but these springs come direct from the mountain. It’s all ground water. It’s running through rocks, limestone and marble on this island, so the water is deeply mineralised. It’s been drunk by my family and all of my grandparents and great grandparents and their ancestry over time. All of the communities here have relied on this water for their health and vitality. In days of old before plumbing, this is the way people would collect their water. They’d come down here with donkeys and very large containers, take them back to their homes and that’s what they’d drink.

Brad:
That’s awesome.

Water Sleuth - Primal Water - Kythera Island
John collecting water from the Karavas local spring on Kythera Island

John:
What is remarkable about this water in the community though, is the life expectancies here. The most recent statistics I have are from 2 years ago, when we had 3 deaths in this village (called Karavas). The ages being, 83, 95 and 97. People live to a ripe old age in this community, which I guess is in part diet, but my Greek grandmother (yaya) would also attest this to being because of the water keeping everyone young, vital and healthy.

Brad:
Well that’s it. Depending on what you read, we’re 70-80% water, so if you are drinking the good stuff like this, it certainly improves your health! As proved here in Kythera and by the looks of the Greek God that you have become! 🙂

John:
What can I say 🙂
The water comes down the mountain at a beautiful drinking temperature and it has a unique quality about it. Off camera before we were using adjectives like ‘silken’, ‘chewy’, it has ‘body’ to it, in other words, you can taste the evidence in the mineral composition of the water. It also has an incredibly clean smell.

Brad:
John what is this here? Is this also a ‘sleuth’ as you were talking about? Or is this too big to be a sleuth?

John:
Yes, it’s a very elaborate structure found around these springs designed to capture the water for agricultural and domestic use, so what you are seeing here is a wash pit, so the men and women would wash their clothing here. Note the size and height of it. The water would be channeled in here and drained out there (pointing to different areas) and they’d use this as a mechanism to wash their clothing, separate to where they collect their water from. This is evident in all of the springs across the island, of which there are many! Ground water is what people live on here and is a very important resource in the community, one that people are very keen to preserve. If you mention the word ‘pesticides’ here to people and they will get very very sensitive about that word. They don’t want them used, because they know it will affect the quality of the ground water. The ground water is what they drink, and in large parts what they ascribe their health and vitality to. They DO NOT want anything that can compromise the quality of the water.

Water sleuth - Kythera Island
John shows us where the locals of Kythera Island collected their water for agricultural and domestic use

Brad:
Hence, all the things we’ve been eating here, you don’t see all the ‘certified organic’ stickers and what not here, because all the food is organic and traditionally grown. They want to keep it that way.

John:
Exactly. All the Olives for example that you’ve eaten Brad on our property, are 100% organic. There has never been a pesticide used on our land. We have no organic certification of course, nor has my cousin that is a very big organic producer here, because that’s just the way it is. It’s not a certification, it’s just a way of life. It’s embodied in everything that they do.

Brad:
Yeah right. That’s awesome. So if someone wanted to come and experience this themselves, where can they stay John? 🙂

John:
They can stay at Villa Faros (www.villafaros.com) in the picturesque mountain village of Karavas! Replent with these beautiful mountain streams and also…

Brad:
Wow, and you just happen to have your shirt on too! Villafaros.com 🙂
So as you can see guys, this is a pretty special part of the world. I highly recommend your drink the best quality water that you can get. Especially looking for real water from a natural spring, instead of tap water labelled by the big companies in bottles (eg: Dasani – Coke). Anyhow, John, thanks for your insights on the water of Kythera Island!

Are the Japanese the Healthiest People in the World?

Are the Japanese the Healthiest People in the World?

According to the WHO stats, the Japanese are some of the longest living people in the world. But a long life doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy one. Personally, we would rather add life to our years than years to our life, so we like to study healthy people and copy what they do. Here’s what we found when we lived in and visited Japan and analysed their diet and lifestyle…

Are the Japanese the Healthiest People in the World

Is the Japanese diet really that healthy?

Seafood and processed food

Most people attribute the long average lifespan of the Japanese to a mostly primal diet rich in seafood. While it is true that the Japanese do eat a good amount of seafood, including various types of nutrient-rich seaweeds, these days their traditional foods are very processed and often replaced with modern commercial western foods.

Breakfast gone bad

We have only lived in the Tokyo area, and I would assume the big cities suffer more from this food commercialisation than the rural villages and countryside towns. However, in the Tokyo area, Japanese people often eat a breakfast not unlike the SAD (Standard American Diet) breakfast: boxed cereals, processed milk, bakery goods, or just coffee and toast. There are bakeries absolutely everywhere, offering sugary processed alternatives to the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, fermented soybeans, fish and vegetables for many city-dwelling Japanese.

Dessert

In addition to fancy cakes, crepes, profiteroles and other European sweets, there are plenty of traditional Japanese desserts, mostly made from rice and beans, which makes them seem much healthier, even though they are sweetened with sugar. When not homemade, however, they are laden with the usual preservatives, additives, and processed sugars and syrups.

Traditional Japanese food is processed and packaged all over Tokyo
We thought there were healthy food selections at 7-11, like this spinach and pork, until we translated the long ingredient list on the back of the package.

Traditional foods all wrapped in plastic

The same goes with pre-packaged bento boxes, sushi rolls, rice balls, and even salads. At a glance, they are traditional healthy goodness. Fish, seaweed, rice, radish, ginger, fermented veggies and the like. And yes, if Japanese meals are home-cooked with traditional ingredients, they are surely the staples of long-living, healthy people. But in bustling Tokyo and its sprawling suburbs, these traditional meals are packaged up with long ingredient lists that include stabilisers, preservatives, artificial colours and flavours, MSG, and various sugars. I talk about this in my article about eating gluten-free in Japan, as many traditionally gluten-free Japanese foods are now full of processed wheat. As in many other societies, traditions are not being passed onto the new generations, who only know a world of ready-made food.

Organic food in Japan

Driving or taking a train through rural Japan, you can see plot after plot of home-grown and community-grown fruits and vegetables. I have no doubt this is a key factor in Japanese longevity. These days, however, a great number of Japanese buy most of their food from the supermarket, where the produce comes from heavily chemical sprayed farms and the meat is mostly factory farmed. There is also tons of imported food in the shops – American pork, bananas from the Philippines, Aussie beef, Vietnamese farmed fish – which our Japanese friends say is because it’s just so much cheaper to import.

Trying to find local or organic produce in a Japanese supermarket
One Tokyo suburb supermarket had a section showing pictures and locations of the farmers who grew the food. But no information on chemical use.

Our few health-conscious Japanese friends have sourced organic or spray-free produce, through a weekly farm box delivery, but properly raised meat is hard to find and very expensive, so they just don’t eat too much of it. There doesn’t seem to be many places to buy organically grown/raised plant and animal food in Tokyo, though the magazine for the English-speaking community lists 4 weekly farmers markets, touting either organic, farm fresh or just local.

One friend is very vigilant not to buy fish caught anywhere near Fukushima, for fear of radiation levels from the nuclear plant. Other people, however, say they heard on the news that people over 20 years old are not affected by radiation, so they don’t think about it. Hmm…

Finding certified organic food in a Japanese supermarket
The symbol at the bottom is one of the logos for Japanese certified organic food

My lifestyle determines my death style

Ok, that line is a bit dramatic, but it’s a favourite from a Metallica song and has a great ring of truth to it. For the Japanese, just as with the contradiction between their traditional and modern diet, there is a great gap between the traditional lifestyle which clearly promotes longevity, and the modern lifestyle which leads to rampant disease and untimely death.

How the Japanese live so long

The traditional lifestyle, still followed by millions of rural Japanese, is one of organic farming, affirming spiritual beliefs, and strong family ties. The elderly are cared for by their families, and continue to proudly work in their gardens and fields despite their age. With a traditional, unprocessed Japanese diet, you have a winning combination for a long, healthy life.

And why so many die young

Modern times, however, has brought great economic and social pressures. The Japanese are very proud people, who would rather die than feel as if they have disgraced their company with poor performance or let their family down with less than the best success. Consequently, Japanese mothers feel it their duty to push their children hard into academic excellence. From a very young age, study hours are long, tutors are many and pressure is high.

Once in the workforce, businessmen are slaves to their company, if only shackled by pride and obligation. After long work hours and uncompensated overtime, workers are expected to socialise with colleagues over drinks long into the night. After a long train ride home, and a short sleep, they do it all over again, usually 6 days a week.

Japanese people sleep everywhere, probably due to overwork and stress.
Japanese people sleep everywhere throughout the day, probably due to overwork and stress.

This lifestyle doesn’t allow much time at all for sleep, self-nurturing, exercise, or for family bonds to develop. Many times the pressure, fatigue and loneliness are so great, it leads to suicide. There is even a Japanese term that translates as “death from overwork”.

Learning from a land of contradictions

It’s all these contradictions that make Japan so interesting and mysterious. The crossing over of ancient tradition and high technology, quiet rituals and chaotic cities, primal vs. modern diet and lifestyles.

It’s really never enough to look at a list of the longest living peoples and make assumptions, as each country and culture is so complex, and true health is gained from a combination of factors which are never clear cut. However, by looking at the various cultures of the world – their traditions, daily habits and contradictions – we can begin to learn what may be best for our own health.

 

Do you think the Japanese diet and lifestyle are good models of health of longevity? Why?