"Since 1994, the monks of Mt. Athos have been regularly tested, and only 11 (the community numbers 2000) have developed prostate cancer, a rate less than one quarter of the international average.
In one study, their rate of lung and bladder cancer was found to be zero.
And when they get sick, there's an in-monastery doctor, Father Ermolos, who is not very busy, because the monks are in excellent shape: there's remarkably little cancer, virtually no heart disease or Alzheimer's.
They must be doing something right, in addition to drinking wine at nine in the morning."
-Excerpted from 60 Minutes, "Mt Athos: A Visit to the Holy Mountain," aired on April 24, 2011, and "A Foolproof Anti-Cancer Diet, with Just One or Two Drawbacks," Sunday London Times, December 7, 2007-
If you received this via email, click here to get to the web version with all the links & photos.
Early Monday morning, blog reader Gael emailed me:
Subject: did you see 60 Minutes last night????
great piece about these monks...but the diet piece sparked my attention. also an article in the UK times about them.
Nope. I had missed Sixty Minutes' Easter Sunday segment. But, before I headed out the door for work on Monday morning, I scanned the 60 Minutes transcript--and read the Sunday Times of London story about the monks' diet! Now here's a story to share! Thanks so much, Gael!
I agree with Gael on this one. Sure the story of these Orthodox Christian monks--who number around 2000, and have been living on a remote peninsula in Northern Greece, high above the Aegean Sea for over 1000 years--is fascinating. But, I was curious about what was keeping them so healthy.
This is definitely an exclusive club! Monks apply from all over the world for the opportunity to live an ascetic, mostly silent, prayerful life at one of the 20 monasteries on Mt. Athos. They get far more applicants than they can handle & they say it's harder to earn a spot for this lifetime silent-ascetic-spiritual commitment, than it is to get into Harvard!
But, back to the health story on Mount Athos. Hardly any cancer? Or heart disease? Or Alzheimer's? I wanted to know more!
Bottom line, their diet & lifestyle is a cross between:
- Calorie restriction
- The authentic post-World War II Mediterranean diet of Crete--lots of physical labor coupled with lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and just a little bit of olive oil, wine, & fish.
Br J Nutr. 2004--when researchers went back to Crete to look at the health of the islanders--the group with the highest olive oil (MUFA) consumption had the highest heart disease, and those with the lowest olive oil intake had the the lowest heart disease. Click here and here for more about why olive oil & the monounsaturated fats aren't exactly health food.
The data on which the Mediterranean Diet is based came from the 1950's. At that time the people on the Isle of Crete had the lowest all cause mortality. It was post-WWII, they were poor, didn't have a lot to eat, ate mostly fresh fruits & veggies from their gardens, walked 9 miles a day, worked at hard physical labor and the highest consumption of oil was 3 TBS a day--and small amounts of fish. Big difference from how we live today.
- Dr. Ornish's mostly-plant-based, no-oil, exercise, & meditation prescription
- Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. & Dr. T. Colin Campbell's plant-based, no-added oil diets.
- Dr. David Katz's (Yale University) theory on the benefits of limiting the variety of foods we eat. Limit your breaksfasts & lunches to a short list of options. Too much variety amps up the appetite! Keep dinners simple--don't tempt yourself with too many courses and different flavors-- it's impossible to resist. No one can resist a sweet dessert after a savory dinner. Read more here
- Dr. Herbert Benson's research on how meditation or daily prayer has positive effects on over 2000 genes that control aging, inflammation, stress, & metabolism. Gene changes can be seen within 8 weeks of starting a meditation practice--but long-time practitioners accrue the most impressive gains! Click here to read "Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxtion response" in PLOS One.
A Urologist Speculates about the Low Rate of Prostate Cancer in the Mt. Athos Monks
Dr. Haris Aidonopoulos, a urologist at the University of Thessaloniki, thinks it's because the monks avoid olive oil, dairy products, and wine at least three days of the week.
"What seems to be the key, is a diet that alternates between olive oil and nonolive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins.
It's not only what we call the Mediterranean diet, but also eating the old-fashioned way. Small simple meals at regular intervals are very important."
Their meals are regular, ascetic, and repetitive. I'm betting that Dr. David Katz of Yale, would say that's one of the secrets of their health success.
What's on the Monks' Menu Today?
I'm also guessing that Dr. T. Colin Campbell wouldn't complain about the small amounts of occasional fish that the monks eat on holidays & feast days. According to Campbell, eating too much animal protein--over 5% of daily calories--turns on cancer cells. In multiple lab experiments, Campbell was able to replicate how cancer cells switch off when animal protein drops below 5% of total calories. Is the monks' low animal protein intake also part of their secret to "no-cancer success"?
What's in the Monks' Pantry?
- Soy dishes
- Red wine from local mountain grapes
- Dairy products are very rare--female animals (dairy cows) are banned from the monasteries
- Fish are a culinary luxury--eaten only on Holidays & Feast Days. Meat is never eaten.
According to Father Moses of the Koutloumousi monastery:
"We never eat meat. We produce most of the vegetables and fruit we consume. And we never forget that all year round, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we don't use olive oil on our food."
It's not just olive oil that the monks steer clear of on Monday, Wednesdays, & Fridays. They also avoid dairy and wine on those days. Turns out, this routine is more about stretching out their food supply, than for religious reasons. But, again, it's likely part of the secret of their good health.
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday:
- No olive oil, wine, or dairy is eaten
Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday:
- It's Salad Days
- Breakfast is hard bread & tea
- Lunch is pasta or rice, vegetables & olive oil
- Dinner is lentils, fruit, salad, olive oil, and red wine
Feast Days & Holidays:
- Fish or seafood
Fast Days--103 days a year (based on my calculations--there could be more)
- Strict vegan diet
Meals are eaten quickly--in about 10 minutes--& in silence, while Bible passages are read. As soon as the passages are completed, the meal is over.
And Then There are the Fasts--The Calorie Restriction Factor
The Orthodox Church requires the monks to stick to three rigorous fasting periods--which requires them to adhere to a strict vegan diet for weeks at a time. 40 days at Christmas, 48 days at Lent, and 15 days for the Assumption. Check out: "Greek Orthodox fasting rituals: a hidden characteristic of the Mediterranean diet of Crete," Brit J Nutr 2004 Aug;92(2):277-84.
According to Michalis Hourdakis, a dietitian with the Athens University:
"This limiting consumption of calories has been found to lengthen life. Meat has been associated with intestinal cancer, while fruit and vegetables help ward of prostate cancer."
The Exercise Factor
The Mt. Athos monks don't need a gym for their work-outs. The 60 Minutes crew found that when they weren't praying, they were constantly busy--tending to their gardens and olive groves, clearing the trails on the steep mountainous footpaths, and providing their own electricity & hot water. Anything that needs to be done--they're the one's doing the work!
The climbs up the mountainous paths exhausted the 60 Minutes crew--while it was a piece of cake for the fit Mt. Athos monks.
The Prayer/Meditation Factor
If the research on repetitive prayer or meditation is to be believed--that it has a positive effect on the genes that regulate stress, aging, and longevity--as well as increasing the supply of artery-saving nitric oxide--reducing the stress hormone cortisol--and reducing damage from oxidative stress--then, no wonder the Mt. Athos monks are practically disease-free!
These monks pray all day long! 365 days a year they are in an eight-hour conversation with God--meditative repetitive prayer. On Mt. Athos daily religious services last eight hours.
While attending services, the 60 Minutes crew described the monks as, "Utterly transformed, with a concentration so profound, they were immune from distraction. There were occasional flashes of ecstasy." I'd say that's meditation at its best!
But, It's Never Just One Thing!
Whether on remote Mt. Athos, or in the middle of New York City--the prescription for good health is the same.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell says it best:
"There is not one single mechanism in a plant-based diet that is responsible for its health promoting effects. It's not about individual nutrients. It's the 100,000 chemicals from plant foods that work together synergistically that bring about good health.
Good nutrition supported by exercise, water, and sunshine is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a biological symphony."
Oops, I also forgot to mention one last thing about Mt. Athos:
"The lack of air pollution is likely to also play a factor in their superior health."