The Mount Athos monks eat a largely mediterranean diet, mostly plant-basedThe Greek Orthodox monks of Mount Athos in Greece are among the healthiest people in the world.

Like the Blue Zones communities around the world they enjoy extraordinary longevity and freedom from the chronic illnesses and diseases that plague so much of the Western world, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia.

So, what’s their secret?

Essentially the monks lead a very simple and austere life (more on their lifestyle in Part 2). They have a simple, seasonal, mediterranean-type diet; mostly plant-based, and pretty much everything they eat is home-grown, home-harvested and home-brewed. Vegetables and pulses are prominent and cooked in lots of lemon juice or olive oil, and flavoured with herbs and spices including cumin, oregano, mint, parsley, dill, celery, fennel, onion and garlic – all known to have health-giving properties.

They avoid meat, but fish is eaten in moderation.

Alcohol (home-brewed) is allowed and is seen as an essential aid to digestion. Moderation is key is everything the monks do so they rarely have more than a glass with their meal.

You might be surprised to hear that sweets are part of the diet (on non-fasting days): most meals end with a cake, baklava, halva, or oat-style biscuit, although again eaten in moderation.

The monks alternate “fasting” and non-fasting days. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays they eat two meals a day (one in the morning, one in the evening) with wine. The other days are abstention days (more than 200 of them a year) where just one meal is consumer, usually at sunset and comprising fruit, vegetables, bread and lentils (dairy, wine and olive oil are forbidden). The monks’ eating regime doesn’t score points with your typical dietitian although it does have some similarities with the 5:2 diet (intermittent fasting) which has been popularised by Dr Michael Mosely as a way to lose weight and live longer.

No talking is permitted during meals; the monks listen to one of the monks reading from The Lives of the Saints. And although each meal is prepared with great care, the food isn’t there to be enjoyed (although they do believe it should taste “nice”). Rather, the motto is “eat to live, don’t live to eat” – a stark contrast with the gluttony that abounds in today’s society and contributes to all sorts of health problems including obesity and disease.

Top 5 dietary lessons from Mount Athos

  1. Eat pulses: lentils and beans are a great source of fibre and also provide iron and folate. They’re also a useful source of protein.
  2. Eat fresh: the monks have a very high intake of seasonal, organic plant-based foods which is likely to contribute to the low incidence of cancer and other diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
  3. Eat small: the monks have smaller portion sizes than many of us are used to and only about 20 minutes to eat their meals, which limits their intake
  4. Eat light: oil-and-water based (steaming/boiling/baking) cooking are alternated. The monks use a lot of olive oil but never use butter or cream.
  5. No salt: no processed foods (often a hidden source of salt) are consumed by the monks and they tend to use herbs and spices to season their foods.

If you’d like to try eating like the Mount Athos monks, I’ve posted recipes for fish soup and chickpea patties.

Source: The Mount Athos Plan, published in The Observer newspaper