Saturday, March 15, 2008
The half vegan monks who are the world's healthiest people
In Italy we have a saying which translates into English as “discovering hot water”, i.e. discovering the obvious.
The medical world has recently found, through a series of in-depth, comprehensive studies including a 10-year study, that one of the healthiest groups of people on earth eats fresh food, mostly vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains, in moderation, in a stress-free environment, within a close supportive community.
These lucky guys are the monks of Mount Athos, in Greece.
They are vegan for more than half of the year, and predominantly vegetarian the other half.
Despite their average venerable age, the 2,000 monks living in 20 ancient monasteries have virtually no heart disease, no cardiac arrests and no strokes, a zero-incidence of Alzheimer’s disease which astonished the researchers conducting the various studies, and unusually low rates of cancer, which in the case of prostate cancer is 4 times lower than the international average. The latter finding is even more remarkable when you know that the monks in that particular investigation were aged between 50 and 104. Their rates of lung, bowel and bladder cancer are zero.
Mount Athos monasteries, called by the British Guardian newspaper “a land without butter”, follow some simple rules.
Monks never eat meat, and only very sporadically eat fish. The bulk of their diet is rice, pasta, bread, pulses, fruits, vegetables, all entirely seasonal and home-grown in the monastery’s gardens.
More than 200 days of the year, including all Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and some religious periods like Lent and Advent, are called “abstention days” and strictly vegan, with only one meal per day.
The rest are non-fast days, on which dairy products, eggs, fish and home-brewed wine can be had. In moderation.
Each meal lasts 20 minutes, after which a bell rings and the monks have to leave the table.
Some of the monks’ favourite dishes are pasta with tomato sauce (who can blame them), rice with boiled greens and leeks, beans with oil, an aubergine, tomato and potato stew called "briam toulou", and chickpea patties.
Since 1994, scientists have regularly tested the monks for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, some of the West’s most feared diseases, and found astounding low or even zero rates of them.
According to scientists, the single most important factor in the monks’ low cancer incidence is their high intake of plant foods.
Professor Haris Aidonopoulos, urologist at the University of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, said that the key seems to be a diet with plenty of plant proteins, free from meat. It has been proven, he continued, that a dietary intake of protein from lentils and beans prevents the absorption of toxins.
Claire Williamson, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, concurs: “Using pulses as a source of protein is something we could all learn from. We tend to rely more on meat, fish, eggs and dairy for protein. Pulses are great for variety, and they provide lots of fibre and iron.”
Pulses, like peas, beans, lentils, soya, chickpeas, are also a low-fat source of protein.
Michalis Hourdakis, a dietician with Athens University, added: “Meat has been associated with intestinal cancer, while fruit and vegetables help ward off prostate cancer.”
“The monks have perfected the typical Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bread, cereals and legumes and low in meat” said Maria Hassapidou, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Thessaloniki in Greece. “On Mount Athos, they have gone one step further by forfeiting meat and only occasionally eating fish, which means they have a very low intake of saturated fats and a high intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, both of which help further to prevent the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”