Ancient Greek View on Olive Oil as Part of the Healthy Mediterranean Diet

“I may instance olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants, and generally most injurious to the hair of every animal with the exception of man, but beneficial to human hair and to the human body generally; and even in this application (so various and changeable is the nature of the benefit), that which is the greatest good to the outward parts of a man, is a very great evil to his inward parts: and for this reason physicians always forbid their patients the use of oil in their food, except in very small quantities, just enough to extinguish the disagreeable sensation of smell in meats and sauces.
~Socrates dialogue with Protagoras

So what did ancient Greeks most often use for cooking? They preferred animal fat, most likely lard. Pigs have a much higher amount of fat than most other animals. And pigs are easy to raise under almost any conditions: cold and hot, fields and forests, plains and mountains, mainlands and islands. Because of this, lard is one of the few common features in traditional societies, including the longest-lived populations.

That was true of the ancient Greeks, but it has been true ever since in many parts of the world, especially in Europe but also in Asia. This continued to be true as the Western world expanded with colonialism and new societies formed. As Nina Teicholz notes, “saturated fats of every kind were consumed in great quantities. Americans in the nineteenth century ate four to five times more butter than we do today, and at least six times more lard” (The Big Fat Surprise).

To return to the Greeks, the modern population is not following a traditional diet. Prior to the World War era, pork and lard was abundant in the diet. But during wartime, the pig population was decimated from violence, disruption of the food system, and the confiscation of pigs to feed the military.

The same thing happened in the the most pig-obsessed culture in history, the long-lived Okinawans, when the Japanese during WWII stole or killed all of their pigs — as the Japanese perceived these shamanistic rural people on an isolated island to be a separate race and so were treated as less worthy. The Okinawans independence was dependent on their raising pigs and that was taken away from them.

When the Greeks and Okinawans were studied after the war, the diet observed was not the diet that existed earlier, the traditional lard-based and nutrient-dense diet that most of the population had spent most of their lives eating. They were long-lived not because of the lack of lard but because of it once having been abundant.

So, something like olive oil, once primarily used as a lamp fuel, was turned to in replacing the lost access to lard. Olive oil was a poverty food used out of necessity, not out of preference. It is great credit to modern marketing and propaganda that olive oil has been sold as a healthy oil when, in fact, most olive oil bought in the store is rancid. Olive oil is actually a fruit juice which is why it can’t be kept long before going bad, maybe why it gained a bad reputation in ancient Greece.

Lard and other animal fats, on the other hand, because they are heavily saturated have long shelf-life and don’t oxidize when used for cooking. Also, unlike vegetable oils, animal fats from pastured animals is filled with fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, essential to health and longevity. How did this traditional knowledge, going back to the ancient world, get lost in a single generation of devastating war?

* * *

American Heart Association’s “Fat and Cholesterol Counter” (1991)

Even hydrogenated fat gets blamed on saturated fat, since the hydrogenation process turns some small portion of it saturated, which ignores the heavy damage and inflammatory response caused by the oxidization process (both in the industrial processing and in cooking). Not to mention those hydrogenated fats as industrial seed oils are filled with omega-6 fatty acids, the main reason they are so inflammatory. Saturated fat, on the other hand, is not inflammatory at all. This obsession with saturated fat is so strange. It never made any sense from a scientific perspective. When the obesity epidemic began and all that went with it, the consumption of saturated fat by Americans had been steadily dropping for decades, ever since the invention of industrial seed oils in the late 1800s and the fear about meat caused by Upton Sinclair’s muckraking journalism, The Jungle, about the meatpacking industry.

The amount of saturated fat and red meat has declined over the past century, to be replaced with those industrial seed oils and lean white meat, along with fruits and vegetables — all of which have been increasing.** Chicken, in particular, replaced beef and what stands out about chicken is that, like those industrial seed oils, it is high in the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. How could saturated fat be causing the greater rates of heart disease and such when people were eating less of it. This scapegoating wasn’t only unscientific but blatantly irrational. All of this info was known way back when Ancel Keys went on his anti-fat crusade (The Creed of Ancel Keys). It wasn’t a secret. And it required cherrypicked data and convoluted rationalizations to explain away.

Worse than removing saturated fat when it’s not a health risk is the fact that it is actually an essential nutrient for health: “How much total saturated do we need? During the 1970s, researchers from Canada found that animals fed rapeseed oil and canola oil developed heart lesions. This problem was corrected when they added saturated fat to the animals diets. On the basis of this and other research, they ultimately determined that the diet should contain at least 25 percent of fat as saturated fat. Among the food fats that they tested, the one found to have the best proportion of saturated fat was lard, the very fat we are told to avoid under all circumstances!” (Millie Barnes, The Importance of Saturated Fats for Biological Functions).

It is specifically lard that has been most removed from the diet, and this is significant as lard was a central to the American diet until this past century: “Pre-1936 shortening is comprised mainly of lard while afterward, partially hydrogenated oils came to be the major ingredient” (Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise, p. 95); “Americans in the nineteenth century ate four to five times more butter than we do today, and at least six times more lard” (p. 126). And what about the Mediterranean people who supposedly are so healthy because of their love of olive oil? “Indeed, in historical accounts going back to antiquity, the fat more commonly used in cooking in the Mediterranean, among peasants and the elite alike, was lard.” (p. 217).

Jason Prall notes that long-lived populations ate “lots of meat” and specifically, “They all ate pig. I think pork was the was the only common animal that we saw in the places that we went” (Longevity Diet & Lifestyle Caught On Camera w/ Jason Prall). The infamous long-lived Okinawans also partake in everything from pigs, such that their entire culture and religion was centered around pigs (Blue Zones Dietary Myth). Lard, in case you didn’t know, comes from pigs. Pork and lard is found in so many diets for the simple reason pigs can live in diverse environments, from mountainous forests to tangled swamps to open fields, and they are a food source available year round.

Blue Zones Dietary Myth

And one of the animal foods so often overlooked is lard: “In the West, the famous Roseto Penssylvanians also were great consumers of red meat and saturated fat. Like traditional Mediterraneans, they ate more lard than olive oil (olive oil was too expensive for everyday cooking and too much in demand for other uses: fuel, salves, etc). Among long-lived societies, one of the few commonalities was lard, as pigs are adaptable creatures that can be raised almost anywhere” (Eat Beef and Bacon!). […]

Looking back at their traditional diet, Okinawans have not consumed many grains, added sugars, industrial vegetable oils, or highly processed foods and they still eat less rice than other Japanese: “Before 1949 the Okinawans ate NO Wheat and little rice” (Julianne Taylor, The Okinawan secret to health and longevity – no wheat?). Also, similar to the Mediterranean people (another population studied after the devastation of WWII) who didn’t use much olive oil until recently, Okinawans traditionally cooked everything in lard that would have come from nutrient-dense pigs, the fat being filled with omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins. Also, consider that most of the fat in lard is monounsaturated, the same kind of fat that is deemed healthy in olive oil.

“According to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okanawa is a monounsaturated fat-lard. Although often called a “saturated fat,” lard is 50 percent monounsaturated fat (including small amounts of health-producing antimicrobial palmitoleic acid), 40 percent saturated fat and 10 percent polyunsaturated. Taira also reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day [7]” (Wikipedia, Longevity in Okinawa).

It’s not only the fat, though. As with most traditional populations, Okinawans ate all parts of the animal, including the nutritious organ meat (and the skin, ears, eyes, brains, etc). By the way, besides pork, they also ate goat meat. There would have been a health benefit from their eating some of their meat raw (e.g., goat) or fermented (e.g., fish), as some nutrients are destroyed in cooking. The small amounts of soy that Okinawans ate in the past was mostly tofu fermented for several months, and fermentation is one of those healthy preparation techniques widely used in traditional societies. They do eat some unfermented tofu as well, but I’d point out that it typically is fried in lard or used to be. […]

The most popular form of pork in the early 1900s was tonkatsu, by the way originally fried in animal fat according to an 1895 cookbook (butter according to that recipe but probably lard before that early period of Westernization). “Several dedicated tonkatsu restaurants cropped up around the 1920s to ’40s, with even more opening in the ’50s and ’60s, after World War II — the big boom period for tonkatsu. […] During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a piece of tonkatsu, which could be bought freshly cooked from the butcher, became the ultimate affordable payday treat for the poor working class. The position of tonkatsu as everyman food was firmly established.” This pork-heavy diet was what most Japanese were eating prior to World War II, but it wouldn’t survive the conflict when food deprivation came to afflict the population long afterwards.

Comment by gp

I just finished reading The Blue Zones and enjoyed it very much, but I was wondering about something that was not addressed in great detail. All of the diets discussed other than the Adventists (Sardinia, Okinawa and Nicoya) include lard, which I understand is actually used in significant quantities in some or all of those places. You describe (Nicoyan) Don Faustino getting multiple 2-liter bottles filled with lard at the market. Does he do this every week, and if so, what is he using all of that lard for? In Nicoya and Sardinia, eggs and dairy appear to play a large role in the daily diet. Your quote from Philip Wagner indicates that the Nicoyans were eating eggs three times a day (sometimes fried in lard), in addition to some kind of milk curd.

The Blue Zones Solutions by Dan Buettner
by Julia Ross (another version on the author’s website)

As in The Blue Zones, his earlier paean to the world’s traditional diets and lifestyles, author Buettner’s new book begins with detailed descriptions of centenarians preparing their indigenous cuisines. He finishes off these introductory tales with a description of a regional Costa Rican diet filled with eggs, cheese, meat and lard, which he dubs “the best longevity diet in the world.”

Then Buettner turns to how we’re to adapt this, and his other model eating practices, into our current lives. At this point he suddenly presents us with a twenty-first century pesco-vegan regimen that is the opposite of the traditional food intake that he has just described in loving detail. He wants us to fast every twenty-four hours by eating only during an eight-hour period each day. He wants us to eat almost no meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products at any time. Aside from small amounts of olive oil, added fats are not even mentioned, except to be warned against.

How Much Soy Do Okinawans Eat?
by Kaayla Daniel

There are other credibility problems with the Okinawa Centenarian Study, at least as interpreted in the author’s popular books. In 2001, Dr. Suzuki reported in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition that “monounsaturates” were the principal fatty acids in the Okinawan diet. In the popular books, this was translated into a recommendation for canola oil, a genetically modified version of rapeseed oil developed in Canada that could not possibly have become a staple of anyone’s diet before the 1980s. According to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okanawa is a very different monounsaturated fat-lard. Although often called a “saturated fat,” lard is 50 percent monounsaturated fat (including small amounts of health-producing antimicrobial palmitoleic acid), 40 percent saturated fat and 10 percent polyunsaturated. Taira also reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day. Thus, the diet of the long-lived Okinawans is actually very different from the kind of soy-rich vegan diet that Robbins recommends.

Nourishing Diets:
How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate

by Sally Fallon Morell
pp. 263-270
(a version of the following can be found here)

From another source, 7 we learn that:

Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu [eat until you are 80 percent full]. While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa. Indeed, all those stir fries of bitter melon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil. I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island. Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes. Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably good source of vitamin D.

The diet of Okinawa also includes considerably more animal products and meat—usually in the form of pork—than that of the mainland Japanese or even the Chinese. Goat and chicken play a lesser, but still important, role in Okinawan cuisine. Okinawans average about 100 grams or one modest portion of meat per person per day. Animal foods are important on Okinawa and, like all food, play a role in the population’s general health, well-being and longevity. Fish plays an important role in the cooking of Okinawa as well. Seafoods eaten are various and numerous—with Okinawans averaging about 200 grams of fish per day.

Buettner implies that the Okinawans do not eat much fish, but in fact, they eat quite a lot, just not as much as Japanese mainlanders.

The Okinawan diet became a subject of interest after the publication of a 1996 article in Health Magazine about the work of gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, 8 who described the Okinawan diet as “very healthy—and very, very greasy.” The whole pig is eaten, he noted, everything from “tails to nails.” Local menus offer boiled pig’s feet, entrail soup and shredded ears. Pork is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, kelp and small amounts of sugar, then sliced or chopped for stir-fry dishes. Okinawans eat about 100 grams of meat per day—compared to 70 grams in Japan and just over 20 grams in China—and at least an equal amount of fish, for a total of about 200 grams per day, compared to 280 grams per person per day of meat and fish in America. Lard—not vegetable oil—is used in cooking. […]

What’s clear is that the real Okinawan longevity diet is an embarrassment to modern diet gurus. The diet was and is greasy and good, with the largest proportion of calories coming from pork and pork fat, and many additional calories from fish; those who reach old age eat more animal protein and fat than those who don’t. Maybe that’s what gives the Okinawans the attitudes that Buettner so admires, “an affable smugness” that makes it easy to “enjoy today’s simple pleasures.”

Hara Hachi Bu: Lessons from Okinawa
by Jenny McGruther

Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu. While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa. Indeed, all those stirfries of bittermelon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil. I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island. Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes. Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably source of vitamin D.

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