If you want to avoid cancer, live like a monk. That is the inescapable conclusion from research into one of the world’s most renowned monastic communities.
The austere regime of the 1,500 monks on Mount Athos, in northern Greece, begins with an hour’s pre-dawn prayers and is designed to protect their souls.
Their low-stress existence and simple diet (no meat, occasional fish, home-grown vegetables and fruit) may, however, also protect them from more worldly troubles.
The monks, who inhabit a peninsula from which women are banned, enjoy astonishingly low rates of cancer.
Since 1994, the monks have been regularly tested, and only 11 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.
Haris Aidonopoulos, a urologist at the University of Thessaloniki, said that the monks’ diet, which calls on them to avoid olive oil, dairy products and wine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, helped to explain the statistics. “What seems to be the key is a diet that alternates between olive oil and nonolive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins,” he said. “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.”
Meals on the peninsula, which the Prince of Wales has visited regularly and which can only be reached by boat, are ascetic and repetitive affairs that have changed little over the centuries, although there are variations between the 20 monasteries.
The monks sit in silence while, from a pulpit, passages from the Bible are read in Greek. They eat at speed – as soon as the Bible passage is over, the meal is officially completed.
The staples are fruit and vegetables, pasta, rice and soya dishes, and bread and olives. They grow much of what they eat themselves. Agioritiko red wine is made locally from mountain grapes. Dairy products are rare – female animals are banned from the autonomous semi-state.
Life on Athos has changed little over the past 1,043 years. Breakfast is hard bread and tea. Much of the day is taken up with chores – cleaning, cooking, tending to crops – followed by a supper, typically of lentils, fruit and salad, and evening prayers.
Some of the seaside monasteries specialise in catching octopus, a delicacy that is softened up by bashing on the rock. Fish also feeds the Athos cats, protected by the monks for their mouse-catching prowess. Of all domestic animals, only cats are exempt from the ban on females. Some of the monks live in hillside huts or cliff-side caves perched above the sea as satellites of the main establishments, perhaps the closest that modern Christianity gets to medieval hermits. They depend for their sustenance on handouts of bread and olives.
On holidays and feast days such as Christmas and Easter, when other Greeks are feasting on roast meat, the monks prefer fish, their only culinary luxury. Father Moses of the Koutloumousi monastery, one of the 20 organised cloisters scattered over the Athos peninsula, said: “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.”
The olive-oil routine, which also applies to wine and dairy products, appears to have no religious significance, but is a way of eking out their supplies.
All the monks stick to the rigorous fasting periods of the Orthodox Church, in which a strict vegan diet is prescribed for weeks at a stretch.
Michalis Hourdakis, a dietician associated with Athens University, said: “This limited consumption of calories has been found to lengthen life. Meat has been associated with intestinal cancer, while fruit and vegetables help ward off prostate cancer.”
The lack of air pollution on Mount Athos as well as the monks’ hard work in the fields also played their part, the researchers said. There was no mention, however, of whether the absence of women had any effect on the monks’ renowned spiritual calm.
Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday
Breakfast Hard bread, tea
Lunch Pasta or rice,vegetables, olive oil
Dinner Lentils, fruit and salad, olive oil. Red wine
Monday, Wednesday and Friday no olive oil
Holidays and feast days Fish and seafood
Wonders of Athos
— Most of the monasteries on Athos run on “Byzantine time”, with the clock resetting at sunset
— Legend has it that women were banned because the monks became too frisky with shepherdesses
— Vatopedhiou, Prince Charles’ favoured retreat, claims to have saints’ bones, the whip used to scourge Christ, St Stephen’s ear, fragments of the True Cross, and the Virgin Mary’s chastity girdle