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We’ve all heard that eating “Mediterranean” is a healthy way to live. I agree and love Mediterranean food. I remember watching a segment a few years ago on 60 Minutes about the monks who live on Mount Athos, a mountain in Greece often referred to as the Holy Mountain. Mount Athos has been inhabited for nearly 2,000 years by Orthodox Christian monks. No women are allowed to visit Mount Athos, as according to tradition, the Virgin Mary was sailing to visit Lazarus when her ship was blown off course, forcing her to take refuge on Mount Athos. She was so taken by the natural beauty of the landscape that she blessed it and prayed for it to be hers alone. It is said a voice from Heaven declared that it belonged to her. From that moment on, Mount Athos was off limits to any other women. Way to go all Regina-George-you-can’t-sit-with-us, Mary. Now the rest of us gals will never be able to go. 🙂 There have been a few women over the years who have pulled a “Yentl” and tried to infiltrate the monastery and then write about their experiences, but the monks do not take kindly to this.
The monks on Mount Athos live a fascinating life, and I would encourage you to learn more about them. They have no televisions, or news media or musical instruments, and they adhere to a Julian Calendar, meaning they are 13 days behind the mainland and the rest of Europe. An excellent book to learn more about the monks of Mount Athos is Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise.
The Guardian has published an interesting photo essay about the lives of the monks of Mount Athos. It gives great insight into their way of life. The monks receive pilgrims who come to visit and in order to conserve their resources, they have developed a way of eating that has come to be known as The Mount Athos Diet.
The author of The Mount Athos Diet book had spent time with the monks as a pilgrim, and came away from his time there feeling and looking much healthier. Upon researching the monks, he found them to be healthier than people in other parts of the world. This is true in general of cultures that adhere to a Mediterranean way of life, and especially true of the monks. Cancers, heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease are all nearly nonexistent among the monks. They also live longer than men on mainland Greece, with a life expectancy between 87 and 89 years. Comparatively, the average life expectancy for American males is 78 years.
I’m not so much interested in this lifestyle for the weight loss as I am the health benefits. We are not overweight, but who couldn’t benefit from losing a few pounds and getting healthier? I talked to my husband about shifting to this way of eating, as it isn’t a short-term diet, but rather a life change. As we all age, it becomes more difficult to eat whatever we want without consequences. I have never been a fan of short-term diets, as they only address a symptom, which is weight gain, without addressing the cause, which is eating too much and/or the wrong foods for optimal health. Once you leave the diet and return to old eating habits, the pounds come back, usually bringing a few additional friends with them. 🙂 I much prefer a lifestyle change, which eliminates yo-yo weight fluctuations.
The monks follow a simple system.
- They “fast” three days a week. This fast does not mean that they don’t eat. It means they take a break from meat, dairy, eggs, and alcohol. They fill up on fruits, grains, and vegetables.
- On alternate days from Fast days, they have Moderation days three days a week. On these days, they still eat fruits and vegetables and grains, but also enjoy chicken, seafood, dairy, and eggs in moderation. They also allow themselves a small amount of alcohol (usually red wine) with meals. They still do not eat red meat, even on Moderation days.
- One day a week is a “Feast” day, where you can eat whatever you enjoy. The monks save this day for enjoying something sweet or a baked treat.
- They avoid processed foods and keep snacking to a minimum.
- The monks eat in moderation every day.
Once I explained to my husband that the fasting did not mean no eating, he was interested in trying it. We decided to start trying some of the recipes in the book to see if we could live that way.
Some of the aspects of The Mount Athos Diet that I like are:
- It doesn’t feel like full-on deprivation because you know there are days ahead where you can eat or drink something you crave. You can eat cookies, just not every day. I admit limiting myself to just the Feast Day for sweets is a bit of a challenge for me. My husband too, as he likes to eat three Oreos every evening. 🙂
- The alternating Fast and Moderation days give your digestive system an opportunity to rest.
- This is a lifestyle change that can be sustained for the rest of your life.
- It’s not complicated. No measuring, counting points and calories or servings of particular nutritional groups.
The challenge for me so far is mainly the mindset shift necessary to eat this way. I grew up in an era where your plate had to have a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. And usually dessert followed the meal. So to switch to eating meals that don’t include meat feels strange to me. I also start to wonder if I’m going to feel full after eating a meal consisting only of vegetables and grains. I really have to check in with my stomach to see what is actually true because my mind tells me I will not feel full. It takes around twenty minutes for your brain and digestive system to sync regarding fullness. That is a case for eating slowly. Give your brain the time to align with what your body is actually doing. Otherwise it is very easy to overeat.
We have tried several of the soup recipes in the book, along with pasta and vegetable dishes. The monks are even so hip that there is a recipe for avocado toast included in the book. 🙂 We have not prepared any dishes from the book that we would not eat again.
Along with recipes, the book lays out sample menu plans for Fast days and Moderation days. It also addresses how to eat in restaurants while following the plan, how to incorporate the eating plan if you work away from home during the day, and even how to host a dinner party following recipes from the plan. There are also success stories where you can read about others’ experiences with the diet. Additionally, there are suggested readings for further study and recipes.
So we are easing into this way of life. It is a very different approach than the western diet many of us grew up with. I personally feel that we know less and less about where our food comes from and the processes used to get it to us, and eating more simply and lower on the food chain is an appealing option.
I have always been fascinated by monastic life. Ignoring the fact that I am not Catholic and that precludes my participation in it, I have still always been intrigued by the way of life of monks and nuns. From the first time I saw The Sound of Music, I have loved the idea of being a nun. And every Sunday night when I watch Call the Midwife on PBS, I want to live at Nonnatus House with the nuns and nurses. 🙂
My first exposure to real-life nuns was when I was younger and our family traveled to Rome and stayed with a group of them in an ancient convent. I was endlessly fascinated by their constant activity as they tended to their surroundings and cooked fabulous meals for us. I remember walking barefoot down the marble hallways, noting how much cooler it was inside the convent than outside in the heat of Rome in the summer. I was at an age where my mom had allowed me to wear a tiny bit of makeup–probably a bit of eye shadow and (probably Bonne Bell) lip gloss. I quickly figured out not to wear any to breakfast, as the moment one of the nuns saw me, she would rush over, grab her apron and begin to gently wipe my face, admonishing me, “No, Bambina, no, no!” 🙂 In the evenings, when the iron gates would clang shut, I felt like I was safely ensconced in a magical fortress, with the noise and dirt of Rome a million miles away.
One cold winter day when we lived in Virginia we spent the day visiting with Trappist monks at the Holy Cross Abbey. This abbey is located in a gorgeous part of Virginia, near the Shenandoah River. You get to the abbey by driving along a winding road lined with gigantic Memory Trees, as they are called. They are believed to be the keepers of the memories of the land, and one need only look at the sheer size of these majestic sentinels to know they have seen a lot over their many years on earth. The abbey is a place of both activity and contemplation. The monks keep busy tending the land and their serious honey and fruitcake business. 🙂 My husband is one of those people who inexplicably loves fruitcake, so we couldn’t leave there without some. I still order it for him for Christmas. There is also a serenity to the place amidst all the activity. They monks have a Retreat House that is open to guests seeking time for reflection and retreat. The retreats are silent, and the only thing that resembles a schedule is taking meals with the monks. I know I will probably never be allowed to visit the monks of Mount Athos but I had a lovely day with the Trappist monks at Holy Cross Abbey. I’ll take it.
I don’t think I would be a good nun, as I like my “stuff” and creature comforts, I’m not selfless enough, and I ask too many questions about religion and faith, much to the frustration of my fellow Christians who have an easier time with blind faith. Having said that, I do think there are aspects of monastic life that we can all incorporate into our lives. At the heart of the lives of monks and nuns is a life of service, simplicity, and routine. They eschew 24-hour news cycles, they work diligently every day, and reserve time for contemplation. With our complicated and overscheduled lives, who among us couldn’t benefit from integrating some of these concepts into our own lives? I know I could, and one of the ways I’m doing that is by learning to follow the example of the monks of Mount Athos and their healthy way of eating, which has come to be known as the Mount Athos Diet.
What do you think? Do you follow a similar eating plan? Do you want to? Let me know in the comment section. And I’d love for you to follow me on Pinterest!