I want to thank Caitlyn Ark for this wonderful blog post, which she wrote based on her experience doing a study-abroad class this summer.
Pass the Olive Oil, Please
The Healthy Diet of a Social Mediterranean, Caitlyn Ark
As I was leaning off the side of our very large, but only slightly crowded, ferry, I watched the gentle crashing of the startlingly wine blue waters below me. Wine deep, wine rich, I thought to myself, which something that the Ancient Greeks, who sailed these same waters, originally coined, intertwining food with the natural landscapes from which they come from. The day was warm, but the kind of warm that drifted down from the bright Mediterranean sun to eventually settle on my shoulders like a soft shawl. I found myself at the bow of our boat, searching for the small nip of the wind to kick up my hair and offer a slight reprieve from the warm air. The Mediterranean is an oligotrophic sea, meaning it is very low in nutrients, so I was surprised to note that I could see schools of small fish darting around socially near the top of the water, playing a marine version of follow-the-leader.
A suntanned man with a friendly beard and a backpack strapped securely around him began to speak about the area we would be hiking to later today. His sunglasses perched purposefully on his head, he pulled out a paper map of the island of Crete and laid it on the wooden table in front of me. Roussos Nikoloudakis is a guide from Chania who teaches scuba diving and physics, and who jumps into photos with strangers in an effort to make their day a tiny bit more interesting. Everything he does, this man does with a passion that is earnest and bright.
“I must tell you,” Roussos began, “every time I visit this region again, I think to myself, why would anyone ever leave?” The brown rolling hills stood starkly against the matching blues of the sky and the sea, making an impressive backdrop to his statement. Roussos’s respect and value for nature and the natural world is not unique, but rather shared by the majority of Greeks that I met. This common interest in the pristine and the connection to nature is closely related to their relationship with food.
Everyone eats. It is one thing that unites all of humanity. Food gives you the energy you need to perform work and keep your body functioning. Food has the ability to transfer memory, culture, and tradition. There are many ways to say this: food matters. For the past century, Americans have been trying to focus on food; searching for the best new diet, something that will keep them happy and healthy. The U.S. is home to a $70 billion industry that has been built on the simple idea of telling people what to eat. Lately, the Mediterranean diet has been buzzing on the lips of these billionaires as the next big thing. Citing the statistics of long-lived members of isolated villages, low amounts of heart disease, and decreased chronic ailments, experts claim that the Mediterranean has the best balance of food, with little to no red meat, and a diet built mostly on greens and other veggies.
Something the experts are ignoring in this conversation, however, is that it’s not just about the food the people of the Mediterranean are eating, but it’s also about how they are eating it. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at NYU, says that is detrimental at any point to “take the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.” Putting the Mediterranean diet back into the context of the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is clear to see that it isn’t enough to simply eat more fish to fully enjoy the health benefits of this region; a large value is placed on the sociability around mealtimes. Every meal that people eat is shared amongst others; traditional food is prepared by hand, often with social aspects built into the cooking of the food; and people remain engaged in conversation long after the last plate is empty.
In 2010, UNESCO distinguished the Mediterranean diet as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, declaring it as “a set of skills, knowledge, rituals and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table.” This recognition of the complexity of the diet is crucial, as it is not just the pattern of the types of food consumed that is considered the Mediterranean diet. UNESCO continues on to highlight that, “eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity throughout the Mediterranean basin.”
Sharing food in the company of others offers many benefits, from social support to building a sense of community. Not to mention that culinary activities such as cooking and passing recipes on is the social way to pass on this identity and culture. When people eat alone, they tend to eat too quickly to avoid discomfort and this leads to negative impacts on both the body and the mind. Alexander Sharp, a Greek American, splits his time in both the U.S. and Greece. He says that in the U.S. he prefers to eat alone because it’s easier, but in Europe it’s rare for him to eat alone. In his own estimation, he shares around 70-80% of his meals when he is in Greece, sharing most of them with his family. He adds that his brother refuses to eat a single meal alone. Alex is the perfect example of the contrast between the cultures of Greece and America, demonstrating that there is a tangible effect on eating patterns from the surrounding dominant culture. Recognizing this difference, a true replication of the Mediterranean diet with the current U.S. culture seems highly unlikely. When asked why this pattern of sharing meals is so prevalent, Alex responds, “Meals in Greek culture represent a way of common gathering, to come home and eat together. It really is just an opportunity to connect with people.”
It turns out that sharing meals together offers more than just a chance to relax and reconnect; recent studies show clear physical benefits as well. A meta-analysis that evaluated over 180,000 children and adolescents in 17 studies explored the possible connection between sharing meals with a family and eating patterns in youth. Researchers found that by simply sharing a meal with a family 3 or more times per week, children and adolescents were found to have healthier dietary and eating patterns. More specifically, there was a reduction in both eating unhealthy foods as well as the odds of being overweight or obese. In contrast, there was a 24% increase in the odds for eating healthy foods, which is substantial when building healthy dietary habits for the years to come. The largest correlation found was a 35% decrease in the likelihood of these children to engage in disordered eating, such as anorexia. The results are clear: psychological benefits from eating together lead to healthy physical benefits as well.
Although sharing meals has clear benefits to developing children, these benefits are not only limited to the youth. A Dutch study examined the effect of shared mealtimes on the elderly. Using a randomized controlled trial in five nursing homes, they set up two wards in each nursing home. One had tables with dishes, family-style, and the other was a control ward where they served plated meals. What they found at the end of six months was a decline in the control group over several criteria (physical functioning, perceived safety, body weight, psychosocial functioning), while the group that shared meals experienced a stability in those same categories. In addition, the mean energy intake for this group increased (481 kJ) but dropped significantly in the controls (-420 kJ). This simple act of dishing up in a group adds a built-in social aspect that maintains the quality of life and physical performance of the nursing home residents.
So, why the decline in the control group? Do our bodies just start to decline and break down after we hit 60? Looking at places such as the island of Ikaria, the village Sardinia, and even Japan, people live into their 100s. There is something about the way that most Western places treat their elderly that somehow accelerates physical decline. Looking at the percentage of Americans above the age of 65 that are in nursing homes, it is a little over 5%. This does not seem like a hefty percent, but looking at Greece, that number shrinks to less than 1%. In a lot of the blue zones, places where people have been shown to live especially long, there is often a culture that celebrates the elderly and keeps them in the community, often teaching a craft or a skill to the next generation. This adds up to an increased sense of purpose, one that can last an entire lifetime. Not only does this sense of purpose give the elderly a reason to get up in the morning, but it also gives them an opportunity to engage in the community in a social way. Many Greeks remember their mother or grandmother going into the woods to gather plants for horta, a traditional salad of edible greens and weeds. This act provides the family with healthy sustenance; it gives the elderly a chance to move around, walking and bending, with a purpose; and it also builds the connections between family members.
According to Susan Pinker’s TED talk, the most accurate indicator of how long you live is not your cholesterol count or your blood pressure, but rather your close relationships. How much you interact with people as you move through your day, how many people you talk to, all of these factors add up to a favorable social integration and a long life. The science behind social interaction supports this. Actions like eye contact, shaking hands, or even a high-five are enough to increase oxytocin and dopamine levels, and lower cortisol levels. This increases trust in people and lowers stress, making for a happier and calmer person. The parts of the brain associated with attention, social intelligence, and emotional reward are engaged in these activities as well.
The Mediterranean diet should be rebranded as the Mediterranean way of life. It is a lifestyle that enjoys the company of others, a social practice, a part of cultural life. With the integration of these ideas and lifestyle choices, the Mediterranean diet opens up to Americans, and any foodie searching for the key to living longer. So next time you sit down to share a meal, make sure to look at people when you ask them to pass the olive oil, and maybe toss in a high five if you’re feeling spunky. Living a longer life means living a joyful one, too.
 Mary Norris, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen.
 Dan Buettner, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” NYT
 Michael Pollan, “Unhappy Meals,” NYT
 “Mediterranean diet,” UNESCO, accessed June 20, 2019
 Sharp, interview
 AJ Hammons, BH Fiese, “Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents?” Pediatrics Journal
 “Social eating benefits quality of life for nursing home residents,” Nursing Standard
 Evgenia Moukanou, “Social Care Services for the Elderly in Greece: Shifting the Boundaries?”
 Susan Pinker, “The Secret to Living Longer May be Your Social Life,” TED talk