The Greeks’ relationship with the Cretan diet, as the Mediterranean diet could also be termed, is typical of their relationship with their country’s culture and its natural and architectural beauty: In less than two generations we have managed to squander the wealth that was refined by centuries – if not millennia – of acquired wisdom. In the past five decades we have seen our old way of life destroyed, the cobbled paths of villages bulldozed into dust, coastlines covered in cement, rivers and ravines poisoned by garbage, towns and villages stripped of green and smothered by cars. So is it any wonder that we would violate the very foundations of our lifestyle – our diet?
We are fortunate that we can still enjoy the benefits of a long tradition of healthy eating, thanks to the momentum that drives most Greeks to seek out quality in what they consume. People who have grown up eating the oily “magirefta” foods, such as lentils etc, which their mothers and grandmothers cooked, will be more likely to select them when the opportunity arises than will the children who are growing up on a staple of red meat, fried potatoes and a range of other foods that are overwhelmingly rich in calories and which lead to obesity and ill health.
Here we see the dangerous confluence of tradition with the its breakdown: The older generation – today’s grandmothers – who grew up during the long years of deprivation want to make sure that their darlings are getting plenty to eat; but what they eat today is not what they would have been eating yesterday, when fast-food outlets and processed foods were not an option. Lifestyles also changed along with our diet. The majority of Greeks no longer live in the countryside and, of those who do, fewer of them are involved in agriculture. And even farmers have pickup trucks and mechanical equipment that save them from long walks and heavy lifting. The result: People who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were at a comparable age are also overindulging in food, cigarettes and drinks.
From a hard life that was forced on them by their hard land, the Greeks went straight to the luxuries that their grandparents would never have imagined. With the serious lack of organized (and mandatory) school sports, very few children build up the physiques and the character to help them cope with their future sedentary lifestyles. And so we became a nation of “soft people,” the “malthakoi” that the ancient Greeks so abhorred. Prizing a sound mind in a sound body, they would surely have been horrified to see the modern Greeks surrender to the excesses of the good life. In fact, they would probably have blamed the country’s many ills on the fact that citizens had given up the rigors of physical and mental exercise and were allowing their children to grow up fat and idle.
Fortunately, the healthy solution is at our fingertips. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil and the other features of the Cretan diet are all readily available year-round and are still cheaper than most other options. Clever businessmen understand that people want to eat healthy food but may not always have the time to cook, so even some fast-food franchises tailor their menus to reflect this. What we need now is for even cleverer people to marry the beneficial ingredients of the Cretan diet with our changing lifestyle, creating ready-to-eat meals that are actually good for us. But perhaps the most effective way to get Greeks to eat right is to force school canteens to carry only healthy food, not their greasy, sweet or highly processed fare. As all the healthy ingredients are produced in Greece, we will attain healthier bodies as well as a healthier economy: Not only will we import less, but a successful brand of healthy food would be a great product to export.
Editorial in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009