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Forget the fads: Ancient Greek diet may be healthiest

Monday - 1/6/2014, 4:28am  ET

Salmon.jpg
A diet rich in fish is a healthy option. (WTOP File)

WASHINGTON - There are lots of diets out there. But the healthiest of all may be a nutritional lifestyle that dates back centuries.

Studies have shown the traditional Greek diet is one of the healthiest on the planet -- in sharp contrast to the modern-day western way of eating with its emphasis on processed foods and vegetable oils.

"It is really the Mediterranean lifestyle and it is the way I grew up," says celebrity chef Cat Cora, who was raised in a Greek-American family in Mississippi, a state with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation.

While other kids were eating fried okra, she was munching on steamed artichokes with olive oil and lemon. It was a diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruits and, above all, olive oil in place of butter, corn oil, lard or cream.

These days, Cora -- a star of the "Iron Chef" TV series and a mother of four -- is touring the country promoting the style of eating she has enjoyed all her life.

She says not only is it delicious, but there are also numerous health benefits.

"You don't have to take a lot of supplements, you don't have to be on any yo-yo diets and things, you just eat a lifestyle that promotes health naturally," she says.

Dr. Artemis Simopoulus, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, has been looking into the effects of the traditional Greek diet for decades. During a long career at the National Institutes of Health, she followed up on studies conducted just before and immediately after World War II that found the people of Crete had lower levels of heart disease and cancer and lived longer than residents of five other European countries and Japan.

Simopoulus, who was born and raised in Greece, says she realized it was the presence of all those omega 3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants that gave the Greek diet an edge.

In her book, the Omega Diet, she urges a return to that traditional way of eating. She says our modern diet emphasizes omega 6 vegetable oils to the exclusion of omega 3s, and the two need to be brought into balance.

Simopoulus, who has advised the federal government and the White House on nutrition, says "current western diets have almost 20 to 50 times as much omega 6 as omega 3 coming from corn oil, safflower -- the vegetable oils."

Even the diet of modern day Greece is not immune, When Greece joined the European Community, it became obligated to import vegetable oils, which resulted in a big dietary change.

"A country that had a perfect diet was pushed into vegetable oils and processed food, which was very destructive," says Simopoulus, who is now helping the Greek government convince the public to return to the nutritional ways of the past.

She says the biggest step for those who want to follow the traditional Greek diet is to swap out those vegetable oils for olive oil, and eat more fish and less meat, which, these days, almost always comes from animals fed a diet high in omega 6 fatty acids.

Simopoulus is also pushing all of us to eat more green, leafy vegetables. In Crete, they have long eaten a vegetable called purslane, which is full of omega 3s. But Simopoulos says leaf lettuce and spinach, which are common in the U.S., work almost as well.

For more information, check out this study on seven countries, complete with charts, published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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