Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Fat (Χοντρή)

Continuing on from yesterday's teaser post, here's another one. I was recently asked at work to prepare a presentation focusing on the Mediterranean Diet. My job was to translate a Greek speech, turn it into bullets and eye-catching notes, and add the photographs. I was able to add any photos I wanted, so I chose them mainly from my own vast Mediterranean collection.

One of the slides included the following statement:
"The Mediterranean Diet, is not just a special kind of diet, but a lifestyle, a philosophy, a vision for life, a standard for welfare." 
So I added the following photo:
... for the simple reason that it depicted the idea of congregation as is often ascribed to the Mediterranean lifestyle, where villagers come together to celebrate something as small as a nameday, or much larger like a saint's feast day (most likely the feast day of the saint attributed to the local village church), inviting their friends and families to the festivities, eating and drinking by sitting around communal tables, and singing in the local genre (in Hania, rizitika songs will often be heard).

When my senior colleagues checked the presentation, they were up in arms: I was asked to change the photo, because of the preponderance of overweight ladies. "We're supposed to be showing the features of a healthy diet, Maria, not one which makes you fat!"
I used this photo instead (both photos are dated July 2013). I didn't initially choose it because I wanted to show the older age group, and this photo contains a lot of people who are not facing the camera. It also shows more people than it does food, but it also contains classic Cretan images, eg the wine in the plastic containers. 
So what went wrong in the overweight ladies' version of the Mediterranean diet? Are they eating junk food? Are they overdoing the meat? Are they eating butter instead of olive oil? I don't think they are doing any of the above. They are simply completely inactive, and they are consuming more calories than they expend.

Stout women always existed in Cretan villages. You can even picture them in your mind: matriarchal figures that wear black day in, day out, gathering their aprons full of horta or holding a pail of eggs in their hands. But there is a difference between 'stout' and 'fat': one refers to your 'build', while the other refers to 'excess flesh'. While we sometimes confuse the terms, we can usually tell the two apart by other features (eg if the person's hands and legs look 'worked'). These women probably started off their life as slim women, putting on the weight slowly, while child-bearing and raising a family when they became less active.

Being active has always helped to keep people fit, but not necessarily skinny. These women most likely still eat Mediterranean food, but they probably eat more sweets because these are more readily available in our times. They are most likely very inactive. Even if they live in a village (and most of them do not in this case - they are visiting from an urban setting), they probably do so without a family to care for, which means that the food that they cook will not be eaten by many people (maybe just themselves and/or their husband). Their days will still be spent preparing a lot of food to be eaten, perhaps because they are used to doing this (because there is a lot of food to start with in that setting). They may still work on the land, but the work will be much more limited than it ever would have been in the past, say their mothers' times, when they would bake bread for the family (which was large), gather greens, milk sheep, tend chickens, graze animals, etc. More importantly, these women don't walk much - they drive or are driven.
This was initially the photo I wanted to show in the presentation (dated August 2013), but it was too Crete-based. I wanted something that showed an event that could have been taking place anywhere in the Mediterranean, rather than specifically in Crete.

Even if they live in a very small village in modern times, a baker will deliver fresh bread to them on a daily, every-second-day or bi-weekly basis because the village bakery will have closed down ages ago, once the village started to become deserted; so their bread needs are dealt with without too much trouble on their part. They also visit a supermarket at least once a week (or fortnight) to do a big shop. That is where they will buy their long-life milk; older people suffer from tiredness and mobility problems in their old age, so they don't always tend animals, unless the animals are being raised for meat, in which case the animals can be left alone for longer periods. The most they may have in the vicinity of their home is a chicken coop, which doesn't cost them much time or energy to tend. Women probably continue to cook for the whole family, tasting and eating the food (we all know the feeling), and they will probably still cook along traditional lines. But they are cooking for people who are generally well-fed and may even have health problems, some of which may have been caused by over-eating or eating too much meat/fat.

The urban shift that has taken place over the last few decades has made people live far away from their ancestral land. Even if they live close to it, they do not spend so much time on it. Those that do spend time on their land live close to it. Very few people are lucky to have their olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, grazing fields, etc, surrounding their private home. So those that do intend to continue to work on their land do this by driving to it, not walking. Somewhere in my reading, I came across some stats about the average time once needed to go to one's fields: in Ancel Keys' time, Greek farmers walked up to 18km a day, while in modern times, they drive that much and walk at the most 2km a day.
This discussion raises the question of what the Mediterranean Diet pyramid is all about. You would still be eating a healthy diet if you ate along those lines, but without a healthy amount of movement, the Mediterranean Diet is probably not going to keep you fit. Healthy, yes, to a certain extent, but not fit. And don't overdo the olive oil: just because it is one of the healthiest fats in the world doesn't detract from its label - it is still fat.

Back tomorrow with another teaser...

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