World diet’s – Greece: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 79.66 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 61.3 male; 75.7 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 24.5 male; 27.7 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 78.7 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
I couldn’t leave Greece and the world famous Mediterranean diet off my list of finalists—even though Greeks aren’t as slim as they used to be. Coming in at number twenty-six on the life expectancy list, Greeks are generally not as healthy as they used to be either, so we will be looking at thetraditional Greek diet, not its contemporary, fast-food degradation.
In its purest form, the Greek diet typifies what has come to be celebrated as the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a lower risk of cancer deaths. A study at the University of Crete found that pregnant women who followed the diet gave birth to children with a lower incidence of allergies and asthma. And over the long term, the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure, and decrease “bad” cholesterol.
Beverage of Choice: Coffee
In Greece, as in so many countries throughout Europe, coffee is the favorite beverage. The Greeks like their coffee two ways: “frappé” style, which is made from instant coffee, iced and covered with frothy milk, unfiltered. The Greeks’ traditional thick, strong unfiltered coffee has sediment on the bottom and is similar to what we would call Turkish coffee. Both styles are often served sweetened.
WHAT THEY EAT
The traditional Greek diet is built around olive oil, fresh local vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, with only a little meat thrown in on occasion. People who eat this way have remarkably low levels of heart disease and even lower obesity rates. Although the contemporary Greek diet has deviated from this ideal, with refined grains, high-fat cheeses, and fast foods occupying an ever more prominent place on the menu, the basic principles behind the original Mediterranean diet are worthy of our attention.
WHAT’S IN IT
In addition to the following foods, Greeks eat a lot of tomatoes, eggplant, onions, green beans, and green peppers. These and other vegetables make up a large part of every meal. Nuts and seeds are also important components of the traditional Greek diet.
Fresh Seafood: Greece is a peninsula surrounded by several islands, so it makes sense that the people would eat heart-healthy fish on a daily basis. Just about any fish you can name—halibut, red mullet, swordfish, tuna, sardines, whitefish, and shrimp—is part of Greek cuisine. Oily fish such as sardines are good sources of protein and omega-3s.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Olive
Although the average Greek derives up to 40 percent of his or her daily calories from fat, Greeks still have one of the healthiest diets in the world. That’s because they get most of their fat from olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that lowers “bad” (LDL) cholesterol without reducing “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Olive oil is high in calories, but it remains in the stomach longer than carbs or protein and stimulates hormones, which can suppress your appetite and create a feeling of fullness. One study found that a Mediterranean diet containing olive oil was more effective at long-term weight loss than a low-fat diet.1 After eighteen months, only 20 percent of the women on the low-fat diet had stuck to their eating regime. By contrast, the women on the Mediterranean diet said that they didn’t feel as if they were dieting at all.
Leafy Greens: The traditional Greek diet has leafy dark green vegetables in plentiful supply. Leafy greens contain lutein and other vitamins and minerals essential for good cardiovascular health. Today, Greeks eat salads regularly.
Kalamata Olives: Kalamata olives, native to Greece, are mainly fat, but they are also an excellent source of vitamin E. Eaten in moderation, they can be great in salads and other dishes.
Legumes: Like other Mediterraneans, Greeks eat a variety of legumes, including chickpeas and lima beans.
Whole Grains: Greeks eat barley and other whole grains in their bread products. Greek breads tend to have a much higher nutritional value than the overly processed white breads that too often dominate Americans’ diet.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Grilling fresh meat and fish is the most common way to prepare food in Greece.
The Snack That’s a Meal: Mezes
Greeks have a long tradition of eating mezes, a series of small dishes designed to be picked at slowly over the course of a long evening. Typical Greek mezes include stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki (yogurt with cucumbers), fava bean purée, and grilled meat.
HOW THEY EAT IT
The Greeks eat family style, gathered around the table and sharing large dishes. Eating at home is a critical element of this tradition. Today, however, more than one in ten Greek teenagers eat unhealthy fast food at least five times a week.2
HOW THEY BURN IT
The gymnasium and the Olympic Games were both inventions of the ancient Greeks, but today Greeks get less and less exercise. Maybe that’s one reason 68.5 percent of them are overweight! In the past, the typical Greek villager would conduct all his or her daily business on foot, walking to the store, the office, the doctor, and so on. Today, more and more Greeks are driving just about everywhere.
Breakfast: A typical Greek breakfast usually includes some type of pastry and a cup of strong Greek coffee. Greeks might also eat honey spread on toast. Today, more and more Greek children are leaving home without eating breakfast—a habit that is contributing to the country’s rising obesity rate.
Lunch: For lunch, Greeks might have a traditional Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and olives. A gyro—pork, lamb, or chicken stuffed in a pita along with yogurt sauce and garnishes of tomato and onion—is a popular Greek street food often eaten for lunch. You can easily make a gyro at home with skinless chicken breast or another healthy protein.
Dinner: Dinner might include another fresh salad; some local fish; and several side dishes, perhaps tzatziki and some vegetables, such as green beans and tomatoes.
• Build your diet around legumes, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables.
• Choose thick, filling Greek-style yogurt (nonfat, of course) for maximum calcium—and maximum satisfaction.
• Don’t be afraid of fat—as long as it’s the good kind, such as that found in olive oil.
• Try adding small fish to your diet (i.e. herring or sandines), as they are lower in mercury than larger fish. The Greeks know that local fish are a great staple in any diet, adding both protein and healthy fat.
1. “Dueling Diets,” Harvard Public Health Review, Fall 2004.
2. “Study Highlights Unhealthy Eating Habits Among Greek Children,” Athens News Agency, November 13, 2007.