A lot of people today still claim that the Mediterranean diet (especially the Cretan one) is the best diet in the world, but the truth is that it “was”, not “is”. Things changed in the last 30-40 years in these countries, and now the people living there are full of disease, as everyone else in all of the Western countries are. Having originated in rural Greece, this is my opinion why this diet worked well, until about the 1970s:
This is really the biggest point. This is a climate that it has harsh-enough winters and hot summers, surrounded by sea. All the fish, fruits, vegetables and meat one could think of can survive there. It is the best place to live in the world, food resources-wise. Too much of everything will kill you (even water), so Mediterranean people just ate seasonal things, a little bit of everything.
2. Spelt, not wheat
Cretans traditionally used spelt and farro/emmer (types of ancient wheat with low amount of gluten), not the Frankenstein selected wheat that’s available today. Additionally, very few of their dishes/foods used it. They would also not eat cereals (mainland Greece used a type of lacto-fermented porridge-like wheat cereal called “trahanas”). Gluten was not as omnipresent as it’s today for Cretans.
Today’s problem with gluten is two fold: first, we eat a sort of wheat super-gluten, bio-engineered & non-digestible. Secondly, it’s mostly a matter of reaching a certain threshold during our lifetime (different for each person), at which point our immune system can’t deal with it anymore (had too much of it). Cretans were never reaching such thresholds by using [fermented] spelt at low quantities. Rice/corn was not regular there either, while they always ate our potatoes skinless (skin is where potatoes store their toxins).
3. No sugar
Cretans would eat a lot of vegetables (a lot of them wild) and have fruits and honey as desserts. They would also use honey as a sweetener for some dishes. Both fruits and honey are mono-saccharides, which are the only sugars easily digestible by healthy humans. Poly-saccharides that don’t get digested end up in the gut, where they become food for the microbes that live there, over-populating them. The key to human health is the balance of the gut micro-biota.
4. Plenty of Omega-3
Lots of fish/shellfish and non-vegetable oils (they’d slowly cook with pure olive oil) means one thing: a better balance of omega-3 to omega-6. Possibly as close to 1:2, while most Western people today have a ratio of 1:25, literally killing them slowly.
5. Fermented legumes
As it’s been demonstrated in the lab, most legumes lose their lectins when they’re fermented. Fermentation is key to render a lot of “problematic” food inert. I clearly remember my mom fermenting our beans/lentils overnight (soaking them into water or dairy) before cooking them for a long time the next day. To be fair, not all legumes are created equal. Some are more poisonous than others (especially the colorful ones).
6. Fermented dairy from the right animals
Most dairy consumption in Greece was fermented AND from goats/sheep (not from cows). Goat/sheep’s casein is more compatible with the human digestion than modern cow casein. Greek yogurt has proved its efficacy aiding the fixing of gut problems, but also our cheeses carry a lot of this micro-biota too (not just the well known feta, try mizithra instead). The Greek equivalent of kefir is called xynogalo (although home-made kefir is more potent).
For the Cretans in particular, coconuts actually grow there. The coconut factor is well known among Paleo dieters.
8. Local Delicacies
Cretans in particular would eat some types of insects, snails, raw artichokes and other types of food that are simply not common in the rest of the Mediterranean cuisine. These have nutrients not found elsewhere (e.g. insects have lots of K2 Mk4). And of course, a lot of wild, bitter greens (which thankfully they’re still common among older people in Greece).
9. Greek Mountain Tea
This is a miracle herbal tea that science only recently has started to unravel. Just read the research! I wish more Paleo people were aware of it, the thing works. Cretans also used dictamnus, a local herbal tea, also known for its health benefits.
10. Less red meat
As much as Paleo people would eat red meat almost daily, I’m actually not a big fan of this idea. I think meat should not be consumed more than 2-3 times a week. More (healthy, wild) fish and shellfish is best instead, and a lot of vegetable dishes are good too (even if you cook them in animal fat and bone broth).
11. Offal and bone broth
What, you thought they would throw that stuff to the dogs?!? They ate it! Delicious eggs from local hens too.
12. Lots of herbs
Herbs are known to help with various health conditions. In the Greek/Cretan cuisine, these are used a lot. These days mostly oregano is used, but in the older days there was a much wider array of herbs used.
13. Sun and exercise
A lot of sun, daily. Up in the mountains with the goats and sheep, or down to the fields. Nobody was a couch potato. And of course, snoozing under trees from 3 to 5 PM, when the heat was at its highest. My goat & sheep herder grandfather at 84 years old now can go up the rocky mountain like it’s leveled asphalt. I lose my breath after 3 minutes trying to catch him.
In other words, Cretans and most Greeks were closer to Paleo than most dietitians today would like you to think. When they push down Paleo and try to tell us that the original Cretan diet was the best, they need to get their facts straight, because the two diets are not as far apart as they would like you to think.
As to why the diet was better in Crete and not in another island (e.g. Sicily, Rhodes, Cyprus etc), I believe it’s because of its relative long distance from the mainland. Small boats could not make it to Crete, only bigger ones could. This relative isolation has made Cretans to keep their original, traditional diet for longer than other islands did. But it’s already gone now. Greece really became “modern” in the last 30-40 years (mostly after its induction to the European Union), so cow dairy became the norm, lots of wheat, cheap vegetable oils, and processed/sugar foods too, while the consumption of traditional fermented foods, offal, bone broth, wild mountain vegetables etc went down.