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‘Traditional’ Mediterranean Diet Isn’t What You Think

Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

It’s not what most people think of when they envision the famously light, healthy “Mediterranean diet.” But hearty dishes like smoked game meats; the mélange of cabbage, fish, eggs, cheese, olive oil, pepper, garlic and sweet wine dubbed monokythron (literally, “one-pot”); and the fermented fish sauce garum were once common fare in the region whose traditional dietary patterns are now seen by many as a global model for better eating.

Evidence that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it was not predominant in the region during the long Byzantine era (roughly the years 330 to 1453) has been gathered by Dr. Ilias Anagnostakis from the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. His findings have sparked controversy in his home country, he says.

Anagnostakis believes that previous assumptions about historical diets in the region are erroneous because they were largely based on what was eaten in monasteries, which kept meticulous records of the food produced on-site. The diet of Byzantine monks consisted largely of grains, pulses, vegetables and wine, with a high level of honey production — possibly as a source of beeswax for making candles, or of substitute calories to make up for a lack of meat and dairy. Either way, “it was not indicative of the Byzantine diet as a whole,” says Anagnostakis, noting that “religious calendars imposed some kind of dietary restriction [on monks] almost half of the days of the year.”

Olive oil, the cornerstone of today’s Mediterranean diet, was “something initially available mainly to the wealthy class, and it was used more for lighting, grooming and hygiene; large-scale production for food came later,” says Anagnostakis, whose research was presented recently at a lecture hosted by the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul, Turkey. He says that archeological evidence from Byzantine sites shows that “game hunting and fish-eating were more common than previously believed — smoked and preserved meats were a very important part of the diet.”

While the Mediterranean diet as we now know it may be a bit newer than previously believed, a similar culinary philosophy emanating from the same region long predates the Byzantines, whose empire rose in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived some 700 years earlier, “put forth a holistic medical approach of nutrition, diet and exercise that was a forerunner of today’s ‘lifestyle medicine,’ ” Dr. Angelos Sikalidis, an assistant professor of nutrition at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, said at the same lecture event.

Another classical figure, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Archestratus, can be thought of as the “father of gastronomy,” according to Sikalidis, who has been researching past and present dietary habits and nutrition in the Aegean region along with his Yeni Yüzyıl colleague Dr. Aleksandra Kristo. Way back in 350 BCE or thereabouts, Archestratus wrote of the importance of “raw foods of good quality, combined harmoniously, with lighter sauces and moderate spices that don’t interfere with the foods’ natural flavors,” Sikalidis says. “He also praised fish and noted the importance of season and location in deciding what to eat.”

A diet born of necessity

Such principles, of course, didn’t necessarily reflect the actual diet of the general populace, which largely ate what was available to them — from the fermented fish and preserved meat of the Byzantine era to the legumes, grains, olive oil, vegetables and fruits deemed so heart-healthy by outside researchers in the 20th century.

“This diet came out of necessity rather than choice,” Sikalidis says, noting the irony that as people from other countries started “discovering” it, Greeks and Turks themselves started to rely on a less healthy and less plant-based diet, following global trends.

As a result, he says, “heart diseases and cancer are now major causes of death in the Aegean region.” Greece also has the highest percentage of overweight children among Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to data released by that group last year.

One major driver of this change was Greece’s joining of the European Union in 1981. This brought the country under Europe’s common agriculture policy and led to the abandonment of healthy, but unsubsidized crops like legumes, nuts and citrus fruits, according to Pavlos Georgiadis, the Greece coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network. But the country’s ongoing economic crisis has lately been planting the seeds for a reversal as a new generation once again tries to make a living from the land. In his video-blog series “Farming on Crisis,” Georgiadis profiled young farmers, many of them urban transplants, who are creating job opportunities for themselves while helping revive diverse, low-impact agriculture. His own family’s business, Calypso, grows an ancient olive variety unknown outside its northeastern Greece region.

Sikalidis is among those who see hope in such developments. “There have been good efforts recently to preserve or revive old agricultural practices; preserving food traditions is a way to protect our health, and vice versa,” he says. “Consumers can be a powerful force in choosing between these older and newer ways of eating.”

Main photo: Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

Zester Daily contributor Jennifer Hattam is an independent journalist based in Istanbul. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Cities, BBC Wildlife, California, IPS, Istanbul Eats, The National,, Time Out Istanbul, Wired and Women’s eNews. She also leads culinary tours in her adopted city and blogs about her experience at The Turkish Life.