High fat, long life. What's the catch?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2005

Some of the healthiest people on the planet eat a diet that consists of 40 percent or more of fat. They are among the longest-lived folks anywhere, and have almost no heart disease, strokes or high blood pressure. They also have almost no diabetes or obesity. What's even more surprising is that their genetic cousins, who also consume a diet that consists of 40 percent fat, are among the sickest, fattest, pooped-out pill-takers in history.

You've probably already identified the second group: Americans. What you may not know is that their healthy cousins live in Italy and Greece, and enjoy the true Mediterranean diet.

The true Mediterranean diet is not what you had last week at the neighborhood Italian or Greek restaurant. The house special at your local pizza parlor had about 250 calories per medium slice, even more if it included pepperoni or sausage. If you opted for a plate of pasta it probably weighed about 18 ounces and floated in butter or Alfredo sauce. And you probably had room for tiramisu.

Let's take a trip to southern Italy and join a local family for dinner. Your entire pizza will have less cheese than a couple of pieces of Chicago style. The crust will be pancake-thin and the tomatoes will be fresh. The next course consists of a plate of vegetables smothered in olive oil, and a small dish of pasta on the side. If they had known that we were coming they would have had beef, pork or veal, but that's not regular fare. Your dessert is a glistening handful of fresh grapes.

American physicians began studying the Mediterranean diet on Crete, an island about 250 miles south of Athens, in the early 1960s. Other parts of Greece and southern Italy had similar dietary patterns, but the Cretan diet was studied intensively. Physicians went there to learn why Cretans were among the longest-lived in the world, and why they had no coronary artery disease or stroke, even though 40 percent or more of their calories came from olive oil. Vegetables, pasta and potatoes made up about 50 percent of the diet of Crete and southern Italy. They averaged about one ounce of fish per day, even less red meat, and about four eggs weekly. Pastry and candy were rare holiday treats. And of course, there was wine.

The passage of nearly half a century has confirmed and extended their findings. Italians and Greeks in those same areas, now more affluent, have drifted toward a Western-type diet. The result is a rising incidence of coronary artery disease and stroke. When these victims of affluence revert to a true Mediterranean diet, with a high intake of fats from olive oil and fish, their risk of dying from heart disease drops dramatically.

There's a lesson there somewhere.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.