Elderly Greek migrants who came to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s have a lot to be proud of for their contribution to the national food scene.
Not only did they establish our early milk bars and fish and chip shops, but they also helped to introduce the Mediterranean diet to Australia. The effect of importing the Greek version of the Mediterranean diet to Australia was far-reaching – cultural traditions were kept alive and Greek migrants continued to eat protective foods and potentially lived a longer life as a result.
"They have more than 35 per cent lower mortality from CVD and overall mortality compared with Australian-born people..."
Research shows that although post-war Greek migrants have a high prevalence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors (like obesity, diabetes, smoking, hypertension), they also live longer than Australian-born people. They have more than 35 per cent lower mortality from CVD and overall mortality compared with Australian-born people, after at least 30 years arriving in Australia.
This concept - where high CVD risk factors meets a long life - is referred to as the 'morbidity mortality paradox' or 'Greek-migrant paradox’.
Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos – an accredited practising dietitian and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the College of Science, Health, Engineering and Education at Murdoch University – believes that adherence to the Mediterranean diet is what is keeping many Greek migrants alive for longer.
“What we see now are elderly Greeks who are in their 80s or 90s who have kept their home gardens, eaten a plant-based diet featuring much smaller amounts of meat [than a non-Mediterranean diet],” says Dr Itsiopoulos, who discusses the Greek-migrant paradox at the start of her new book, The Heart Health Guide.
Although Australia was quite slow to integrate Greek food into it dining offerings (Greek restaurants only really became popular in the 1970s and 80s), the Mediterranean diet remained alive and well in many Greek migrant households across the country.
“[While living in Australia], they’ve continued to use extra virgin olive oil, lots of herbs and wild edible greens in their cooking. So we hypothesise that Greek migrants have retained a large part of the traditional Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. And that is what is protecting them from early mortality.”
"So we hypothesise that Greek migrants have retained a large part of the traditional Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. And that is what is protecting them from early mortality.”
Shifting eating patterns, from one country to another
Data from elderly Greek migrants participating in the International Union of Nutrition Sciences Food Habits in Later Life (FHILL) study shows that although many food traditions continued, some of the dietary habits changed after they arrived in Australia.
The research showed that the early Greeks faced a lack of familiar foods when they migrated here. Traditionally used to eating a lot of plant-based proteins as part of a Mediterranean diet, they soon took advantage of an abundance of cheap animal meats available in Australia. Meat-eating was also seen as a sign of affluence, as was ‘plumpness’.
“This apparently resulted in traditional foods (e.g. olive oil) being replaced with 'new' foods (e.g. butter), 'traditional' plant dishes being made more energy-dense, larger serves of animal foods, sweets and fats being consumed, and increased frequency of celebratory feasts.”
"Greek migrants continued to eat large serves of putatively protective foods like leafy vegetables, onions, garlic, tomatoes, capsicum, lemon juice, herbs, legumes and fish."
The shifting food pattern meant that many migrants gained weight. However, the study shows, Greek migrants continued to eat large serves of putatively protective foods like leafy vegetables, onions, garlic, tomatoes, capsicum, lemon juice, herbs, legumes and fish.
“We suspect that these factors may explain why GA [Greek arrivals] have recently been found to have over double the circulating concentrations of antioxidant carotenoids, especially lutein, compared with Australians of Anglo-Celtic ancestry. This in turn may have helped to make the CVD risk factors 'benign' and reduce the risk of death.”
In a 2015 paper, co-authored by Dr Itsiopoulos, it’s also suggested that the Mediterranean diet altered the gut microbiome of elderly Greek migrants, reducing their risk of death.
Dr Itsiopoulos tells SBS that elderly Greek populations, who stayed true to religious traditions, fasted regularly eating only vegan foods for over 100 days a year. She believes this was another element that helped to prevent early mortality.
“This may also be why Greek migrants performed a little bit better than [other cultural groups including Australian-born populations] because they were more resistant to acculturation. They have retained more of the traditional ways of life.”
"They have retained more of the traditional ways of life.”
It seems that Greeks aren’t the only migrant groups who enjoy a longer life compared to Australian-born people.
A 2019 study, published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, shows that older Italian-born men have a lower mortality than their Australian-born counterparts when low socioeconomic status and high smoking rates are taken into account.
The Migration Council of Australia conducted a literature review on the health of migrants in 2015, which also states that “general health levels for migrants are higher than they are for Australian born citizens”. Migrants experience all-cause death rates 10-15 per cent lower than Australian born persons (AIHW, 2011).
Despite the advantage in overall mortality rates, there are differences in illness statistics. The council also says that migrants from non-English speaking countries “experience language and cultural barriers in accessing health facilities, services and information particularly in mental health areas”.
The Heart Health Guide, created by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos and published by Pan Macmillian, features 80 recipes and an expert guide on how the Mediterranean diet lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, improves overall heart health and promotes weight loss.