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Passport to Health: Greece

health secrets of GreeceThe people of Greece have figured a lot of things out when it comes to knowing how to live a happy, healthy life. It makes sense–Greece is the birthplace of Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine.

Have you ever been to Greece? My husband and I went many years ago, in the BC years (Before Children, of course). We started in Athens and then spent a week island-hopping. And if you’ve never been–go. It’s absolutely gorgeous: sun-washed, distinctive architecture, sparkling sea, incredibly laid-back culture, fabulous food. If it isn’t paradise…well, it comes pretty close.

That said, if a trip to Greece isn’t on the horizon for you anytime soon, the least you can do is steal their secrets for a life well-lived. (It’s not like we haven’t done it before…read this, and this, and this for previous Passport to Health posts.)

So what are the Greek secrets to a healthy life? Some fairly simple stuff, as it turns out. One of the most interesting is this: napping!

Napping for health

In Greece (like many Mediterranean and warm-weather countries, like Spain, Egypt, and Italy), it’s a common thing to take a mid-afternoon siesta. To their benefit.

Researchers have cottoned on to this health habit. In a study of over 23,000 Greek men & women between ages 20 and 86, over the course of 6 years, they found that people who took a 30-minute siesta at least 3 times a week had a 37% lower risk of heart-related death. Other studies have corroborated this: countries where siestas are common tend to have lower levels of heart disease.

One theory why napping helps keep your heart healthy? A regular nap may help you relax more and have lower stress levels.  Or, perhaps nappers are generally getting more rest, more sleep…and there’s plenty of research to now show that getting sufficient sleep is associated with lowered blood pressure, lower rates of obesity, and improved brain health.

“Let your food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”

Sounds like a mantra for the explosive trend toward organic food, food cures, and holisitic nutrition, right? But that quote belongs to Hippocrates. 4th century BC, baby. Western medicine, you guys.

The Greeks have long practiced this principle, and now the research in favor of the Mediterranean diet is huge. Much of it surrounds the impressive benefit to our hearts. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Medicine analyzed the results of several studies that pitted the Mediterranean diet and low-fat diets head-to-head. They found that the Mediterranean diet was more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet, and brought greater improvements to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to protect against the “big C”: many studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to reduce cancer risk.

So what, exactly, do you eat if you’re trying to go Mediterranean? Read this.

Then there’s all that walking…

Like many European cultures, walking is a way of life. When my husband and I visited the island of Santorini, we rented a Vespa one day. (Sidebar–this was so fun, I can’t even tell you. Zipping around a sun-bleached island, making pit stops at little cafes and beaches…). But when we started on the steep hill up to a famous archaeological site, which involved some rather sharp switchbacks…well, people were walking at a faster pace than we were motoring up. They were passing us on the switchbacks. This might have been a little embarrassing. Just maybe.

Anyway, the walking thing is a big deal in Greece. And I think we all know this is a good idea. Here’s how to incorporate more walking in your life.

For more Passport to Health articles, read these next:

Passport to Health: French Paradox

Passport to Slim: Weight Loss Secrets from Around The World

Passport to Health Part Deux

Passport to Health: Norway

Get Healthy With Olive Oil, Tomatoes, and Wine

I’ll admit it: I’m a little obsessed with Europe. In the past I’ve written about the French Paradox , and there’s a big part of me that would like to be reborn in this life as a French woman (and not only because spa treatments are considered part of the French healthcare system). Also, I could very easily live the rest of my life in London, drinking tea and taking weekend trips to Paris and Tuscany.

But lately I’ve been researching and reading about the Mediterranean diet, and I’m growing convinced that it’s the way to go. Not as a short-term weight loss plan, per se (although it does appear to help with that), but more as a long-term way of life. And that’s because the evidence is overwhelming that it can lead to a longer, healthier life.

And who doesn’t want that?

The research in favor of the Mediterranean diet is huge-ola. Much of it surrounds the impressive benefit to our hearts. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Medicine this month analyzed the results of several studies that pitted the Mediterranean diet and low-fat diets head-to-head. They found that the Mediterranean diet was more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet, and brought greater improvements to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to protect against the “big C”: many studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to reduce cancer risk.

The British Medical Journal published a big study a couple of years ago, concluding that the Mediterranean diet is associated with “a significant improvement in health status”, specifically: a reduction in overall mortality (9%), mortality from cardiovascular diseases (9%), cancer (6%), and incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (13%).

Convinced yet?

So what, exactly, do you eat if you’re trying to go Mediterranean?

  • real food, for starters
  • an emphasis on plant-based food: vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes
  • limited red meat, but plenty of poultry and fish
  • olive oil (pretty much replacing all your other fats, like butter)
  • nuts
  • fresh, seasonal food
  • wine in moderation
  • no eliminated food groups (except twinkies)

There’s much more detail out there, of course, if you’re interested. A wonderful resource for all things Mediterranean diet is Oldways. This is an organization on a mission to raise awareness about the health benefits (and joy) of this ancient way of eating.

When my husband and I were in Italy a few years ago, we made bruschetta in our little kitchen pretty much every day: fresh bread, fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and salt…and if there’s a better taste combination out there, I’d like to find it. Sometimes, the simpler the food, the better.

Besides all the research, I am personally convinced that eating a Mediterranean diet is an effective way to adopt a healthy lifestyle for one other important reason: it is pure pleasure. And, therefore, something you’d be not only willing to do long-term, but happy to do. 

Sure, there may be other ways you could improve your health and live longer. I happen to not believe there is one perfect diet for everyone. Some people may be able to stick to Dr. Esseltsyn’s ultra-low-fat/vegan diet , as an example. In fact, I have little doubt that if you really could stick to this kind of nutrition plan, your heart would be healthier. But for most of us, it would involve just too much sacrifice. And if you’ve been reading this blog for anything longer than five minutes, you’ll know that I’m all about enjoying life, enjoying food, and indulging whenever possible .

The mediterranean diet fits this bill perfectly.

Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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