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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 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. The author of the book indicates that the Mount Athos Diet follows the principles of the monks’ eating habits, but has been modified somewhat to accommodate eating habits and foods available to those not living on Mount Athos.
So the way of eating outlined below is based on how the monks eat, but not exactly the eating plan that they follow, as they do not have access to some of the foods that we do. For us, this is the plan we would follow based on that of the monks of Mount Athos:
- “Fast” three days a week. This fast does not mean that you don’t eat. It means taking a break from meat, dairy, eggs, and alcohol. You can fill up on fruits, grains, and vegetables.
- On alternate days from Fast days, there are Moderation days three days a week. On these days, you can still eat fruits and vegetables and grains, but also enjoy chicken, seafood, dairy, and eggs in moderation. You may also allow yourself a small amount of alcohol (usually red wine) with meals. The monks 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.
- You will still want to try to 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. There is even 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 eating. 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. The 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 practices 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!
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The Diet of the Monks on Mt Athos is just one factor affecting increased lifespan.
What about any beneficial effects from these other factors?:
1) Good climate
2) Abstinence from women
3) Sacraments of the Orthodox Church
4) Life of manual work and prayer to God
You’re probably right! It is difficult to isolate just one factor that contributes to longevity. I’m fascinated by areas of the world that have large numbers of healthy elderly people. The things they all seem to share are healthy food, a sense of community, and meaningful work–things we all can benefit from! 🙂
Love this! Thank you for sharing your insights Sarah!
Thanks for reading Victoria! 🙂
You wonder: “With our complicated and overscheduled lives, who among us couldn’t benefit from integrating some of these concepts into our own lives?”
Well, (one year after I answer) It is not a matter of concepts. It is a matter of civilization. You don’t need monks to open your eyes on the toxicity of stress and destructive way of modern civilization, do you ? I’ll tell you the truth : we are here on earth to pray and praise the Lord. Anything else is false and futile. Trying to destroy the ancient cultures or choosing concepts here and there to build a happy society is bound to fail. it’s a proof of failure, shows your emptiness. It’s a trap, social engineering, child story. wake up, get out of hypnosis. The modern theater is collapsing. What remains and always is, is truth, justice, natural divine order.
I’m not sure I understand what you mean by my trying to destroy ancient cultures. I was a bit surprised this post caused such a negative reaction for you, as most respond quite positively to it. I was only highlighting one aspect of these monks and their lives, which is their diet, which I found interesting. Not sure how you deduced from that that I am empty, and have a need to wake up from my hypnosis. 🙂
I agree with you that the modern theatre is collapsing, never more evident than this past year of 2020.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
Dr Pete Patitsas here. I am an emergency medicine doctor in Pennsylvania. I am writing you hoping that we could talk about “The Athos Diet”. I wrote a book recommending a diet that I call a life hack for battling the obesity epidemic worldwide. These methods were taken from Greek Orthodox Monks in Mount Athos examined, studied, and validated through 21st century medicine. Like many things, this ancient Wisdom packs a powerful scientific punch. Through a combination of plant based protein, intermittent fasting, and walking, this diet can help those suffering from risk factors associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. I so appreciate your time and hope that providence brings us together. I argue that the practice of fasting is truly the ultimate game changer.
Hi, Dr. Pete! Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. I would love to read your book. Do you have review copies available? Or is it available on Amazon?
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
Hi Sarah, I am a emergency medicine doctor and Greek Orthodox Christian. I have written a book on this concept but also have added to the factors of intermittent fasting that make their lifestyle so healthy. I would love to talk to you about “The Athos Diet. -Dr Pete
Hi, Dr. Pete!
Thank you for contacting me! I’d love to hear about your book. 🙂
I follow the Orthodox fasts at Lent and Nativity. This is no meat and wine, oil and fish only on certain days. Fish is understood as vertebrate fish, shell fish are always allowed. Faithful Orthodox abstain from meat on Wednesday and Friday. On feast days you can have what you like. I’m working on the Wednesday and Friday fasts, but I have a way to go. Very interesting article, and the monks only have to give up meat for 1 more day a week! The fasting isn’t bad; I have less desire for meat now and generally only eat sparingly. Best of luck to you and your husband on this new diet.
I enjoyed reading your experience following The Mount Athos diet. My husbands doctor told him to try this way of eating as he has a few stomach issues, however he does still have a bit of trouble with some of the bean type of recipes we have tried. Consequently we have slipped back to our old ways . Reading your article has inspired me to get back on track with this way of eating . So much lighter on our planet . Thanks
Beans can be hard on everyone. 🙂 I remain intrigued by these monks and their way of life and eating habits. An inspiration to everyone! Thanks for stopping by, Tracy! 🙂
Hi Sarah –
Thank you for your beautiful and interesting article about the Mount Athos monks and their life and most importantly their diets.
I only just stumbled on your post because of your book and also saw a post on Instagram about the death of the much loved head chef Epifaniios who lost his battle with cancer at the young age of 64 which is extremely rare in Mount Athos – may God bless his sweet soul 🙏🏼
I did not know about the passing of the Mount Athos head chef. I had to look that up. So sad. Thank you for sharing that information. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about the monks and their way of life.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
Perhaps try hummus, it is made from chickpeas not beans. Also avocado is a wonderful alternative. For a snack tahini is great; it’s made from sesame seed.
Thanks for the suggestions, Tim! 🙂
Oooooh, I loved reading this, I was nodding and smiling all the way through! Part of me longs for monastic life and the older I get the more I’m incorporating some monastic principles into my life, even though I live in the city. Simplicity, holiness, purposeful living with a regular schedule. Lately I’ve been moving towards a monastic-type diet, too, and it seems to suit me very well. But I probably wouldn’t make a very good nun either 😉 Lots of love from a like-minded lady in Finland🤗
I agree, Pauliina! Especially during all the uncertainty going on right now, simplicity and a purpose is the way to go. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
I wrote The Mount Athos Diet and am delighted that you find it beneficial. To correct some points: the recipes contained in the book are not necessarily what the monks eat. We make it clear at the beginning of the book that the diet is modified to include food ingredients which the monks don’t have access to. They don’t eat chicken, for example – no meat of any kind, only fish which they catch themselves. I’ve never seen an avocado in an Athos monastery, and they don’t snack or have baked treats.
But – The Mount Athos Diet works for us Westerners and carries with it most of the same benefits enjoyed by the long lived monks.
I am thrilled to have you comment on my blog post about your excellent book! This post remains one of the more popular ones on my blog. Thank you for clarifying about the food choices and modifications made in your book to accommodate Western eating habits. I will update the blog post to reflect that.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
I have written a book, “The Athos Diet”, published in March of 2021 about a fascinating aspect of “Mount Athos” diet, which is intermittent fasting. Please check it out. I would love to talk more about it with you. Google it! -Dr Peter Patitsas