What does the Mediterranean diet, that much-praised standard, really look like?
Red wine and pasta? Israeli hummus and pita? Moroccan chickpea stew?
To Artemis Morris, ND (‘00), LAc, it looks like her Great Aunt Argyro sipping her morning glass of olive oil, easing into her 11th decade on the Greek island of Crete. Or perhaps Aunt Argyro is visiting with neighbors after their customary afternoon nap, sitting outdoors as the sea breeze sweeps away the last of the day’s heat. They await a dinner of bean soup, dark bread, cheese and wild greens, all generously flavored with olive oil from local orchards.
For Dr. Morris, joining her extended family on vacations as a child, these images offers a vision of wellness that comes not through pills and workout plans but through a life embedded in place and community. Argyro died two years ago at the age of 107, but her life still guides Dr. Morris in her work as a healer, teacher, researcher and author.
"My definition of medicine was inspired by growing up in a Mediterranean household," Dr. Morris says. "If we can bring the Mediterranean lifestyle into our homes, our health care issues are going to fall away."
Dr. Morris, a graduate of Bastyr University’s naturopathic medicine and acupuncture of Oriental medicine programs, approaches the Cretan diet as both heritage and professional interest. After her studies at Bastyr, she conducted ethnographic research in Crete, culminating in an article on Mediterranean diet and lifestyle for Naturopathic Doctor News & Review.
Her inspiration was the Seven Countries Study begun in 1958, a landmark study of 12,000 healthy middle-aged men that found that Greek and Italian diets were highly protective against heart disease. Dr. Morris interviewed her great aunt and other residents of Crete who were alive in the 1950s, discovering patterns that supported the Seven Countries findings. Her paper probes the Greek word eugeria, or happy aging, a concept that relies on “social support, physical activity, afternoon naps and stress management with a positive attitude.”
Dr. Morris writes, “Notably, most people who are surviving and thriving into their 80s and beyond in the Mediterranean area did not have access to conventional medical care until recently and relied on traditional and folk medicine, such as herbal medicine, for health and wellness during most of their life.”
Her Aunt Argyro lived her entire life without modern medical care. Like many elements of the traditional Cretan lifestyle, this came not by choice but by necessity. For those growing up during the scarcity of World War II, a plant-based diet that included foraged foods was essential for survival. Wild greens like dandelion, amaranth, purslane and chicory, known collectively as xorta (“horta”) remain central to the island diet. The Greek Orthodox religion brings another influence – it has some 180 fasting days, which means many people eat no meat or dairy for half the year.
Those factors shape a diet rich in beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits, with limited amounts of fish and free-range meat. And lots of olive oil.
"'Swimming in olive oil’ is a term you can use for most dishes," says Dr. Morris.
Her great aunt said her daily small glass of olive oil was her secret to longevity. Without cars, residents of Crete walked a lot too, perhaps eight miles from village to village, snacking from orange, fig and chestnut trees along the way.
Perhaps, says Dr. Morris, the American fascination with the Mediterranean diet should expand to the entire Mediterranean lifestyle – a slower, more social orientation that has deep health benefits, she says.
As a child vacationing with her parents from Connecticut, she marveled at the popularity of daily naps and the social nature of life in Crete.
"Here in the U.S., at the end of the day we lay down in front of the TV, the computer or the iPad, and zone out," she says. "In Crete, the end of the day is the time for social interaction. It's built into the culture and done on a daily basis.
"My Aunt Loula, who owns a restaurant, is very busy during the summer tourist season. But still she takes time every day to sit at a café and meet some of her friends and have a cup of coffee. And coffee is a social occasion that could take hours."
Dr. Morris translates that vision for patients at her practice, Revive Wellness Center in Connecticut, and in the nutrition courses she teaches at the University of Bridgeport. She also co-authored The Anti-Inflammation Diet For Dummies, incorporating her research.
"I think the Mediterranean diet is the best researched healthful diet," she says. "It's also the easiest to follow, because it's omnivorous. I have patients who are not going to stick with a difficult diet. But they can do this."
Her ethnography also informs a clinical study she led on the Mediterranean diet and diabetes. She gave a talk on the project in September at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. She is working on publishing the study results and writing her book based on her ongoing ethnographic research. She tries to keep a balance among the demands of practice, teaching and caring for her twin two-year-olds. They are another reason to live out the vision she received from her great aunt and her community.
"I have to be true to my culture," she says. "Taking care of myself and taking care of my kids is a part of that."