The best way to determine why the people of Crete enjoyed good health is not by considering the benefits of one type of fat over another but by assessing their diet in a more holistic fashion. Nutrition scientists prefer to study one dietary variable at a time to determine potential benefit or harm. Humans, however, do not eat individual nutrients; they eat foods, and these foods contain hundreds of nutrients that synergistically affect health. If the Cretan diet is analyzed integrally and in context, then the protective effects of all aspects of the diet must be considered. These include, but are not limited to, the abundance of antioxidants and ALA from wild plants; the high selenium content of the soil; the low saturated fat but high omega-3 fatty acid content of meats and other products from pasture-fed animals; low intakes of trans fatty acids; and the substantial quantities of fish consumed daily.
Cretans certainly consumed a lot of olive oil and fish and drank healthy portions of red wine, but they were also part of a culture and landscape that supported the production and enjoyment of beneficial foods. Their diet cannot be easily reproduced. Procuring 100% pasture-fed beef or eggs from chickens that are truly freeliving is challenging; current laws do not ensure truthful labeling of meats, fish, chicken, and eggs; the availability of free-range and grass-fed products is limited; and costs are often prohibitive. Not many people forage for wild greens, and most will search in vain for purslane at their local grocery store. Yet, eating the Cretan diet is not impossible. Purslane, herbs, and wild greens can be grown in a home garden. Farmers’ markets often offer eggs from freeliving hens and cheeses from the milk of grass-fed cows. Walnuts and dried figs are easily found in most stores as are other sources of healthy fatty acids such as flaxseeds, salmon, or sardines.
With a little effort, many people can follow the basic features of a Cretan diet—plant some purslane, be picky about the hamburger and eggs you buy, and, yes, consume more olive oil, fish, and wine.
— Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE, is a clinical dietitian and diabetes educator at Yavapai Regional Medical Center and the Pendleton Wellness Center in Prescott, Ariz.