This Mediterranean island's delicious diet is linked to a long, healthy life.

Updated: August 30, 2011

Four tablespoons of olive oil per day. Forty-eight cups per year! That's how much the typical resident of Crete consumes. Does that explain their staggeringly low mortality rate, even compared to long-lived Americans and Japanese?

Fascinated by Cretan longevity, French researchers fed 605 heart patients a typical Cretan diet -- high in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil -- for 27 months. Not only did heart attacks and cardiac deaths decrease by more than 70 percent, deaths from all causes (including cancer) went down and life expectancy increased greatly even compared to people who ate a diet usually prescribed to heart patients.

But here's the most surprising part: Cretans eat twice as much fat as Americans. In fact, they get 27-29 percent of their daily calories just from the monounsaturated fats in olive oil. Sugar and dairy products are scarce. Sounds like the much-touted Mediterranean diet, but there's more. The key difference is Cretans eat more seafood, leafy vegetables and walnuts, which are all high in omega-3 fats.

Researchers link Cretan longevity, in part, to their consumption of these omega-3-rich foods as well as olive oil (they pour it over everything, from fresh greens to sweet pastries). Olive oil is 77 percent healthful monounsaturated fat and it's also cholesterol free. One tablespoon provides 8 percent of the RDA for vitamin E -- a powerful antioxidant that prevents LDL ("bad") cholesterol oxidation and raises HDL ("good") cholesterol.

We're not suggesting you guzzle the stuff -- 1 tablespoon of olive oil has 125 calories and 14 grams of fat. But you might want to try incorporating more of it into your diet. Have fun experimenting with different varieties; you'll probably find extra-virgin oil has the freshest olive taste. And eat more omega-3-rich foods, too.

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