`The Mediterranean Diet Revisited


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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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