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The Mediterranean Diet Revisited

Dec. 22, 2010
Elena Paravantes

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The Miracle of the Mediterranean diet: It leads to long life, pro­tects from heart dis­ease, can­cer, dia­betes, and obe­sity.

But do we really know what actu­ally makes the Mediterranean diet so spe­cial? One might ini­tially think it’s the ongo­ing flow of extra-vir­gin olive oil, but it’s much more than that. The true Greek Mediterranean diet is ben­e­fi­cial for many more rea­sons.

When did it all start?

Recognized as one of the health­i­est diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet is not a cre­ation of some doc­tor or nutri­tion­ist, nor is it a pass­ing fad, it’s a cen­turies-
old eat­ing lifestyle orig­i­nally fol­lowed by the peo­ple liv­ing in the Mediterranean basin.

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It all started when University of Minnesota Physiologist Ancel Keys stud­ied the diets and habits of seven coun­tries in the 1950s (often referred to as the Seven Countries Sudy), includ­ing the US, Japan, and Greece. He found that indi­vid­u­als from Greece had the low­est rates of heart dis­ease and lived the longest even though they had a rel­a­tively high intake of fat. This astound­ing infor­ma­tion was enough to take the Mediterranean diet from the tiny vil­lages of Greece to the head­lines of cities around the world. In 1993, two Greeks, Antonia Trichopoulou, Professor of Preventative Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Athens Medical School, and Dimitrios Trichopoulos, Professor of Cancer Prevention and Professor of Epidemiology at the Department of Epidemiology of the Harvard School of Public Health, devel­oped the Mediterranean diet Pyramid under the aus­pices of Harvard University.

It has ever since become a sci­en­tific stan­dard paving the way for nutri­tion­ists, doc­tors and spe­cial­ists to iden­tify what’s good for us and what’s not. Thanks to an ever-grow­ing body of evi­dence that the diet can pre­vent every­thing from heart dis­ease to can­cer, the Mediterranean diet is what sets the stan­dard for long life and good health.

Where is it today?

When you speak about the Mediterranean diet today peo­ple across the globe know what it’s all about. It’s been 15 years since the two doc­tors Trichopoulos devel­oped the Mediterranean pyra­mid, and today you can find restau­rants serv­ing up Mediterranean-inspired del­i­ca­cies on almost every cor­ner and Greek food prod­ucts in almost every major gro­cery store. There is even a pack­ag­ing sym­bol, Med Mark, designed to help shop­pers quickly iden­tify healthy Mediterranean diet prod­ucts in super­mar­kets. And recently the Mediterranenan diet was awarded UNESCO World Heritage sta­tus.

But although the Mediterranean diet has gained inter­na­tional recog­ni­tion and increased pop­u­lar­ity in many places in the world, one can’t say the same of its birth­place. A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report shows that Greeks, Italians and other Mediterranean nations are con­sum­ing more calo­ries, more sat­u­rated fat and any­thing but fol­low­ing their forefather’s diet.

Researchers attribute this change in eat­ing habits not only to increased income but to diverse fac­tors such as the rise in the num­ber of super­mar­kets, work­ing women hav­ing less time to cook, fam­i­lies eat­ing out more often in fast-food restau­rants, and of course, less exer­cise. Sadly today, a mas­sive 75% of the pop­u­la­tion in Greece is obese or over­weight — an ironic leader in the European Union.

What is the Greek-Mediterranean diet?

If you live out­side of Greece you may think the Greek diet is made up of all those tasty dishes you find in Greek restau­rants such as pastit­sio, fried cheese (saganaki) and sou­vlaki. Actually, these foods have lit­tle to do with the tra­di­tional Greek diet that is known for its health prop­er­ties. When we talk about the Mediterranean diet, we are refer­ring to the tra­di­tional dietary habits of the inhab­i­tants of coun­tries in the Mediterranean region.

We all think of olive oil when we hear the term, but in fact, it is a lot of other things. It is char­ac­ter­ized by a high intake of veg­eta­bles, fruits and com­plex car­bo­hy­drates with the main source of fat being olive oil. As a result, it is rich in fiber, phy­to­chem­i­cals and antiox­i­dants. However, it is not a veg­e­tar­ian diet, as red meat is some­thing to be enjoyed once a month, with the main source of pro­tein com­ing from beans and local fatty fish such as sar­dines and anchovies.

Reaping the ben­e­fits of the Mediterranean diet and the tra­di­tional Greek diet is all about using the right nutri­tional ingre­di­ents in the right way. In other words, just adding olive oil to all your dishes isn’t going to do the trick; you need to con­sume a vari­ety of foods in order to see healthy results.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is the main fea­ture of the Greek Mediterranean diet. Greeks con­sume more olive oil than any other nation in the world, a mas­sive 26 liters per per­son annu­ally. And though it has many health ben­e­fits, it also has one dis­ad­van­tage: it’s a calo­rie booster, which means many peo­ple avoid it for fear of gain­ing weight. In fact, many peo­ple believe that the increas­ing rates of obe­sity in the Mediterranean region is due to the high-fat con­tent of the diet. However, Trichopoulou notes that there has been a mis­un­der­stand­ing in the role of oil in the rise of obe­sity in the Mediterranean coun­tries. Trichopoulou says that it is the result of inad­e­quate phys­i­cal activ­ity and a sur­plus of calo­ries. In other words too much food and not enough exer­cise. Certainly, olive oil has many calo­ries, but a diet can be fol­lowed that can include oil while stay­ing within nor­mal lim­its. This can be accom­plished by com­bin­ing olive oil with veg­eta­bles, there­fore achiev­ing a medium caloric level dish.

It should be noted that the Mediterranean diet is not a low-fat diet, 40 per­cent of the calo­ries come from fat, much higher com­pared to the 30 per­cent rec­om­mended in a con­ven­tional diet. Can this be too much fat? No, accord­ing to Trichopoulou, as long as the fat comes from olive oil. In fact, sev­eral stud­ies have shown that a reduced fat diet was no more effec­tive in keep­ing away weight gain, heart dis­ease, dia­betes, or other chronic dis­eases com­pared to a nor­mal fat diet. In other words, don’t be afraid of olive oil, it actu­ally pro­tects you.

Vegetables

We know that veg­eta­bles play an impor­tant role in the Greek diet and is one of the rea­sons that this diet is so healthy. But how much do Greeks really eat and how do they do it? Greeks have had a his­tory of high con­sump­tion of fruits and veg­eta­bles. Although Greeks do not fol­low exactly the Mediterranean diet as it was 40 years ago, there are still many char­ac­ter­is­tics of this diet present today. One of the rea­sons they are able to main­tain this high con­sump­tion is the fact that veg­eta­bles are con­sumed in 2 ways, as a salad, but more impor­tantly, and this is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from
other cul­tures, as a main dish.

Most Greeks con­sume veg­eta­bles as a main dish 2 – 3 times a week. These dishes are some­what like casseroles and are usu­ally made from sea­sonal veg­eta­bles such as green beans, egg­plant, arti­choke, cau­li­flower and okra. Basically it is a com­bi­na­tion of veg­eta­bles, herbs, toma­toes and olive oil. This dish is called lath­era from the Greek word lathi which means oil. Normally a big plate is con­sumed, which eas­ily cov­ers at least 3 – 4 serv­ings of veg­eta­bles. In addi­tion, Greeks have a huge num­ber of veg­e­tar­ian recipes due to the scarcity of meat (in the past) but also because of reli­gion. The Greek Orthodox Religion requires its fol­low­ers to fast for over 180 days a year, this con­sisted of avoid­ing ani­mal prod­ucts which meant that they had to find a way to have tasty deli­cious veg­e­tar­ian dishes. Today most Greeks fast an aver­age of 10 days a year, but even so they still con­sume these veg­e­tar­ian” dishes on reg­u­lar basis.

Beans

Beans are a per­fect diet food. They’re rich in pro­tein, low in fat, high in fiber and sat­is­fy­ing and cheap. Easy to make, boiled or from a can, they can be con­sumed with a touch of olive oil, lemon, toma­toes and herbs. Studies have shown that con­sum­ing beans can pro­tect from heart dis­ease and can­cer and they pro­mote weight loss as they as they are great source of fiber pro­mot­ing sati­ety. Greeks con­sume them pre­pared with tomato, onion, and olive oil, and also accom­pa­nied with cheese and bread.

Fish

We already know that fish is good for you. But some fish are more ben­e­fi­cial than oth­ers. Traditionally, Greeks con­sumed fatty fish, which are rich in Omega‑3 fatty acids, mostly sar­dines and anchovies as these were the local choices. The fat from these fish shield us from heart dis­ease, arthri­tis, dia­betes and even depres­sion. It is rec­om­mended that we con­sume 3 ounces of fatty fish 2 – 3 times a week to ful­fill our essen­tial fatty acid needs. Smaller fish have lower lev­els of mer­cury, com­pared to larger fish such as salmon, tuna and sword­fish.

Yogurt

The tra­di­tional Greek diet did not include large amounts of milk, as many peo­ple in the Mediterranean region were lac­tose intol­er­ant. Instead, they met their dairy needs through yogurt and cheese. Besides being a good source of cal­cium and pro­tein, yogurt con­tains good” bac­te­ria that are ben­e­fi­cial for the gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem. The bac­te­ria actu­ally strengthen your immune sys­tem, aids diges­tion and help the absorp­tion of cer­tain nutri­ents.

Herbs, Spices and Condiments

The spice of life, herbs and spices play a very impor­tant role in Greek cui­sine. Olive oil alone won’t do the trick. The most com­monly used are gar­lic, lemon, onion, oregano, pars­ley, lau­rel, mint, dill, cin­na­mon, cumin, and all­spice. Herbs con­tain bio­chem­i­cal sub­stances that actu­ally work towards pro­tect­ing us from chronic dis­ease.

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