You may have heard of the popular Mediterranean diet, you may even be following it. But did you know that it was actually drawn from the traditional Greek diet? Bread, olive oil, and wine, are hallmarks of the Greek diet, and are actually known as the Mediterranean Triad. Greek yogurt is known to be more nutritious than regular yogurt, and is advocated by many people. Similarly many Greek foods and the traditional Greek diet are seeing a revival, today. For instance, in the recent article in NY, “The Island Where People Forget to Die” author, Dan Buettner, talks about many aspects of healthy living and diet in areas that he calls ‘blue zones’, pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Specifically, he talks about Ikaria, in Greece where people follow a Greek diet and live longer without any debilitating disorders.
How did Mediterranean diet become popular?
People on the small, isolated Greek island of Crete, who had been eating a traditional Greek diet since ancient times, were healthier and slimmer than those living in any other country.
The diet was first publicized in 1945 and his researches showed him that there was a very low incidence of heart disease amongst the people of southern Italy and Greece, and all this in spite of the fact that they consumed about 40 percent of their caloric intake in the form of fat. This led Dr. Keys to the conclusion that it wasn’t just total fat consumption that mattered in the incidence of cardiovascular disease, but also the kind of fat consumed. These Mediterranean people consumed a huge amount of olive oil, but a relatively low amount of saturated animal fat, and virtually no processed or hydrogenated fats. They also ate a generous supply of deep water fish with its beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Keys and his wife went on to promote a diet based on his findings, which they called the Mediterranean Diet. Dr. Keys himself was an attestment to this lifestyle as he lived to a ripe old age, and even became a centennarian, dying from old age just a couple of months before his 101st birthday. In 1993, the Mediterranean Diet was introduced and popularized in a big way by an organization called the Oldways Preservation Trust in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health and the United Nations World Health Organization. This was done partially in response to the prevailing propaganda of the time, promoted by the low fat and no fat diets, that all fat was bad.
Did Greeks actually follow the Mediterranean diet?
Traditionally, Greek diet consisted of foods that were easily raised in the rocky terrain of Greece’s landscape. Breakfast was eaten just after sunrise and consisted of bread dipped in wine. Lunch was again bread dipped in wine along with some olives, figs, cheese or dried fish. Supper was the main meal of each day. It was eaten near sunset. It consisted of vegetables, fruit, fish, and possibly honey cakes.
Sugar was unknown to ancient Greeks, so natural honey was used as a sweetener. Fish was the main source of protein in the Greek diet. Beef was very expensive, so it was rarely eaten. Beef and pork were only available to poor people during religious festivals. It was during the festivals that cows or pigs were sacrificed to the gods, and the meat was cooked and handed out to the public. Wine was the main drink in ancient Greece. It was watered down; to drink it straight was considered barbaric. Milk was also rarely drunk.
What is the Greek doctor’s diet?
The Greek Doctor’s Diet, focuses on controlling blood sugar levels. It helps avoid hunger pangs by eating smaller portions of food, but more regularly (at least once every four hours). The diet has similarities to both the Atkins and GI regimes but with a much heavier emphasis on Mediterranean-style eating, which encourages eating more fruit, vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil and fish.
The diet was designed by Dr Fedon Lindberg, a Greek-born, Norwegian-based specialist in obesity and hormonal disorders. He believes eating little and often is better than going for long periods without food as this risks overindulging later. Followers of this diet eat mainly foods with a low GI (glycaemic index) which release sugar into the bloodstream gradually. Sugary high-GI foods should be strictly limited and eaten as small snacks only after a low-GI meal. This helps in limiting the sudden fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
Dr Lindberg calls this the ‘slow carb’ approach and says it is designed to improve overall health as well as weight loss.When it was unveiled in Norway, it is said to have inspired nearly a quarter of the population to change their eating habits. The diet is similar to the GI diet which focuses on foods that are digested slowly and are more satisfying. But like the Atkins diet, Dr Lindberg’s plan cuts down on starchy high-carbohydrate foods, such as white bread, baked potatoes and rice. It also encourages plenty of protein and fats; but only those regarded as healthy.
How to eat like a Greek?
The first rule is to stop eating packaged, processed, refined junk and start eating real food that can give you nutrients you need to lose weight and function at your best. Here are the 15 most things you need to know before embarking on a Greek diet.
The foundation of the Mediterranean/Greek Diet is breads and grains, which are considered to be the staff of life. Wheat has been cultivated in Greece for thousands of years and it’s a staple part of Greek cuisine. It’s used to make a variety of breads including pita bread and crusty whole grain peasant bread, but there are many other tasty and nutritious alternatives to breads in the diet, most notably various kinds of pasta, but also bulgur wheat, rice, couscous, and corn mush, or polenta. The complex carbs in whole grains provide our bodies with the crucial energy source we need to work out and function properly, while increasing our levels of the feel-good hormone, serotonin, which can help control cravings and thwart overeating.
Fresh fruit, in season, often makes for a simple dessert eaten at the end of a meal. The majority of the fresh fruit consumed are fruits of the Rose family like apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries. Other fruits like grapes, melons, figs, oranges and tangerines are also eaten. This naturally sweet treat helps satisfy the need for sugar while curbing hunger.
3. Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are the main vegetarian sources of protein in the Mediterranean Diet. Beans and legumes are one of the best natural sources of the two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. They include lentils, chickpeas or garbanzos, butter beans, white beans, fava beans, green beans and peas. There are a variety of ways to cook them. For instance, lentils are cooked up with vegetables and spices in a delicious, savoury stew. Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are ground to a powder and mixed with cumin, garlic, sesame tahini and water to form a delicious hummus.
4. Herbs and spices
These flavourful additives contain natural chemicals that help revive metabolism, slow gastric emptying, reduce blood sugar, and decrease cravings for sugary and fatty foods. Mediterranean dishes are rich in flavor, thanks to herbs like basil, parsley, and oregano. These ingredients add more than just taste: In an analysis of more than 1,000 foods in the U.S. food supply, these three herbs ranked among the top 50 most concentrated antioxidant powerhouses. Using more herbs and spices in your cooking also means you can go easy on the salt.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds round out and add diversity to the vegetarian protein sources and are consumed and used in a wide variety of ways. Almonds are usually eaten by themselves, or with dried fruit for dessert. Walnuts or pine nuts are good sprinkled on salads, as are sunflower seeds. Sesame seeds can be mixed with honey in dessert confections, or made into a paste called tahini that can be used to make desserts, dressings, or spreads. Nuts make a satisfying snack and contain high amounts of nearly every nutrient shown to boost metabolism, lower blood sugar, and burn fat.
In Greece, water is as necessary as olive oil is for food. The moment you sit down at a restaurant, the first thing to come is a bottle of cold water. Apart from filling you up and keeping you from drinking pseudo-beverages (soda, aerated drinks) it also replenishes and hydrates your body. The Mediterranean diet recommends that, in addition to the wine and other fluids consumed, you drink at least six glasses of water daily. In hot weather, or with vigorous physical activity, you should consume more. The best water comes from natural artesian wells, or springs.
A March 2013 study of elderly Ikarians found that higher coffee consumption was associated with better blood-vessel function, a key factor in heart health.
8. Olive Oil and Olives
Like wheat, olives have been cultivated in Greece since ancient times. The golden green oil extracted from the first cold pressing of olives is called extra virgin olive oil, and it is used in some form in most traditional Greek dishes. Few other plants have so many uses like the olive, its oil are used for food, medicine, cosmetics, lighting, cooking among many more. Olive oil has a wide variety of traditional medicinal uses.
Hippocrates used it for curing gastric and duodenal ulcers, muscular pains, and even for treating cholera. Olive oil removes gravelly deposits from the bile and improves its flow; it’s also a gentle laxative for children. Spanish physicians in the 19th century discovered that olive oil was more effective than quinine in treating malaria and other intermittent fevers. As well as being used for their richly flavored oil, olives are also eaten whole.
The most frequently eaten type is the plump kalamata olive which is added to stews and salads or eaten as part of a meze (appetizer) dish. Our bodies need dietary fat to burn fat. Research also shows a diet rich in monounsaturated fat boosts metabolism, blunts fat-storing hormones, and increases satiety. Olive oil has a number of other distinctive virtues. Galen considered it to be perfectly balanced between all of the four basic qualities – hot, cold, wet and dry. Mediterranean people have traditionally consume a huge amount of olive oil – up to five gallons per year, and put it on everything. Because olive oil is their primary fat source, their cardiovascular disease rates remain low.
9. Cheese and Yogurt
In the United States and other developed Western nations, we eat too many dairy products, and the ones we do eat aren’t that good for your health. Too much milk leads to too much phlegm accumulation, and lowered resistance to colds and respiratory infections. This tangy cheese is a staple in Greek cuisine. Its semi-hard texture is great for both topping salads and baking into savoury dishes, and it’s slightly lower in fat than some other cheeses. The Greek diet goes lighter on the dairy, and the dairy that is consumed is cultured for easier digestion, and is generally healthier to eat. Fresh cheeses like Feta and Ricotta are preferred over aged cheeses, which are higher in fats and cholesterol. And yogurt is great for cultivating friendly intestinal bacteria, and is also used for salad dressings, like Tzatziki.
Meat is not consumed on a daily basis in the Mediterranean Diet. Rather, meat is consumed about three to four times per week. Red meat was eaten quite rarely. It was eaten only on special occasions, probably no more than a few times monthly.
Greece is almost surrounded by sea, so it’s no surprise that fish and shellfish are eaten regularly. Fish and other seafood is the most frequently eaten type of meat. Other seafood eaten in Greek and Mediterranean cuisine include fish eggs or roe, squid or calamari, and shellfish. Fish and shellfish are one of the only sources of marine omega-3 fatty acids, the only type of essential fatty acids that science has shown help boost metabolism, control blood sugar, and regulate our bodies’ fat-burning hormones.
12. Poultry and Eggs
Poultry is the next most commonly eaten type of meat in the Mediterranean Diet after fish. Chicken is probably the most commonly eaten form of fowl, although duck and quail are also eaten, in preference to the larger birds like turkey. Eggs are eaten occasionally, mainly for breakfast, but not on a daily basis. A traditional Greek Diet doesn’t include much animal meat, but meals that occasionally include lean protein from chicken and eggs can help control blood sugar and reduce appetite and cravings without increasing overall caloric intake.
Coffee can increase metabolism, help regulate our bodies’ fat-storing hormone insulin, and can increase exercise motivation and performance. The secret to Ikarians’ famous longevity may lie in what they drink, not just what they eat. A March 2013 study of elderly Ikarians found that higher coffee consumption was associated with better blood-vessel function, a key factor in heart health. The vast majority of study participants favoured traditional Greek coffee, which is boiled in a small brass or copper pot known as a briki. Greek coffee is antioxidant-rich and may offer more health benefits than conventional brewed coffee. Read the study here.
14. Sweets and Desserts
Sweets and desserts are not eaten on a daily basis, but are relished and enjoyed when eaten as a special treat. The simplest and most natural form of sweet dessert is dried fruit, such as figs, apricots or dates. After this, there are other confections, like halvah, made from honey, nuts and nut butters, as well as baklavah, made from honey, nuts and filo pastry. The idea of having dessert after a meal is a fairly new concept in Greece. Thirty years ago people used to eat a dessert, a gliko only during the holidays or when they went out, or if they were offered a sweet as a guest at somebody’s house, but you never had a dessert after a meal.
The alcohol in wine stimulates the heart and circulation, and is a vasodilator that opens the blood vessels; alcohol’s down side is its potential to injure the liver from excess consumption, and its tendency to encourage weight gain as a form of concentrated, empty calories. Wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, which actually boosts caloric burn and lowers blood sugar levels. Studies also show people who drink alcohol in moderation weigh less than those who abstain.
The cardio protective benefits of wine come chiefly from various polyphenols and flavonoids found in the skin of the grapes. Red wine, which is fermented with the skins, is higher in these protective antioxidants than white wine. The main polyphenol that has been studied is resveratrol, which raises the level of HDL (High Density Lipoproteins, or good cholesterol) in the blood, prevents blood clotting, and inhibits tumour growth. Read the study here.