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Greeks smoke, drink, don't get much exercise and eat fatty foods - but they're healthier than North Americans.

Now doctors are advocating the high-fat Mediterranean diet as the "miracle" that can bring a long, healthy life.

"The most crucial question in our lives is how to live longer. We believe we found the answer," said Harvard professor Dimitrios Trichopoulos, who tracked 22,000 Greeks for five years before publishing a study, presented in the New England Journal of Medicine last week.

"Greeks are unreasonably healthy," he added.

The secret of the Mediterranean diet is its high content of good fat - the monosaturated kind found in, among other things, avocados and oils that can help lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

The diet advocates drinking wine and eating well - but it is being lauded mostly because it is said to help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.

The study uncovered that people on the diet experienced a 33 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 24 percent lower rate of cancer death.

And while there is a focus on fish - which has good Omega 3 fatty acids, helping to reduce blood clots - red meat is not banned and poultry is also almost always on the menu.

There is also a "significant shift to plant foods," Trichopoulos said.

To stay healthy, the Mediterranean diet also calls for cutting out milk, while indulging in high-fat nuts, cheeses and yogurts. It also recommends downing a glass or two of wine a day. The benefits of the vino are good cholesterol.

The more fruits and vegetables, the better, since their fiber and antioxidants stop the body's oxidation process - and that's what leads to disease.

Carbohydrates are good, too - at least unprocessed cereals and whole-grain breads, since they keep the digestive system working.

"We don't know why yet. If we did, we'd get a Nobel Prize," Trichopolous said.

Carbonated drinks and salt are out, however. "Nothing is perfect," the professor said.

The news about the Mediterranean diet comes one month after another major study concluded that the high-fat, high-protein Atkins diet also works, and at a time when the United States is considering reviewing its dietary guidelines.

The diet flies in the face of standard low-fat diets.

But New Yorkers beware: The diet may help you live longer - even if you smoke - but it won't make you thin. Greeks are also some of the fattest nationals on earth.

A recent survey by the International Obesity Task Force found that Greece tops the "eurobesity" list with 70 percent of women and 68 percent of men overweight.

Yet Greece and Italy - the two leading countries that follow the Mediterranean diet - have the world's highest proportion of elderly people, according to the World Health Organization.

"This diet is only for staying healthy - not for losing weight," Trichopoulos said.

He added that all diets are designed for one reason: "to produce best-selling books."

To lose weight, he said, "eat less and exercise more."

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