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Traditional Greek/Mediterranean diet

Published article: Health Education Australia, spring edition 2000 – with minor amendments.

By Mark Dymiotis

Everyday diet

The Mediterranean diet is promoted as healthy and protective against disease – especially heart disease and some cancers and the Greek traditional diet is regarded as an important variant of this diet. Traditionally, due to their dietary and lifestyle practices, the Greeks had a very good health and life expectancy record – without the benefit of an expensive health care system. In Greece, the people of the island of Crete have a better health record and perhaps not surprisingly, the highest consumption of olive oil (25 litres per capita) in the world.

The Greek traditional diet is based largely on fresh, unprocessed seasonal product. It is low in saturated fat and high in dietary fibre, starch, antioxidant vitamins (from cereals, fruit and vegetables) and polyphenols (from wine and olive oil).

The diet I am referring to is the diet before the 1960’s – after which it was substantially influenced by western practices. However, despite the changes to their diet, Greeks and Mediterraneans have maintained some important traditional customs, especially eating fruit and vegetables. Grains (consumed in various form such as bread, polenta, pilaf, pasta), vegetables and fruits were the backbone of this diet. Other typical foods were nuts and dried fruit. Fish and dairy produce were consumed moderately and meat was a once-a-week treat and very often eaten less frequently. The meat pieces were small and covered with plenty of vegetables. Olive oil was the main fat.

The special characteristics of this diet are that it is easy to prepare, tasty, well tested and environmentally sustainable. Victoria’s similar climatic conditions and the availability of practically all the required ingredients make this diet achievable and attainable.

But in order to reap the benefits from this diet there is a need for some important clarifications. A reasonable assumption will suggest that the health benefits would reside in the everyday diet. However, food writers, professional cooks and food industry people tend to concentrate on the festive and gourmet type food – the food normally served in restaurants. Another point is that this diet must be looked at in its entirety ie eating practices and customs – not just recipes, food quantities and nutrient composition. Lifestyle practices must also be considered.

Greeks, and the Mediterraneans, did not eat for health. They ate for pleasure – health was an important bi-product. If the vegetables needed overcooking or a good dose of salt in order to enhance the flavour, they would do it.

Salads have played a very important role in the traditional everyday diet but they are undervalued, misrepresented and not fully appreciated in food literature. Although salads are associated with fresh vegetables, the use of cooked vegetables and legumes is not unusual. Unless salads are dressed with good olive oil and other dressing ingredients and mixed thoroughly, they do not acquire their special flavour. Contrary to widely held views, a traditional Greek salad has neither feta cheese nor olives in it.

The diet might not have the finesse of French cuisine but it is easy to prepare with exciting and diverse flavours. Some recipes might take longer to cook but they will not need supervision during the cooking. In rural areas, a lot of time was spent on harvesting the vegetables, especially the wild greens – for which the Greeks have a special taste.

Many of these wild greens are found in Australia. In addition to their nutritional value and to the exercise involved during harvesting there are other benefits. During my visit to Crete in1998 a well known botanist with a keen interest in wild greens told me that when his wife is stressed he takes her for her favourite activity: harvesting wild greens. He claims that the contact with earth removes the static electricity from the body and that this is very therapeutic. This assertion could be a challenge for health scientists to verify.

Some of these wild greens are: leontodon tuberosus (a type of dandelion), portulaca oleracea (purslane), papaver rhoeas (common red poppy), urtica dioica (stinging nettle), malva parviflora (mallow), cichorium intybus (a type of chicory), cichorium spinosum(a type of chicory), sonchus oleraceus (a type of thistle).

Cooking these wild greens is exceptionally easy. After washing and getting rid of old and dying leaves, place them in boiling water and cook until soft, drain them, dress them with olive oil and lemon and eat them with bread and olives or cheese – they are delicious.

The flavours associated with the Greek/Mediterranean diet come from a number of factors: good bread, fresh seasonal produce, olive oil, olives, appropriate ingredient combination, herbs, garlic and/or onion, lemon or vinegar. I recently started watching cooking shows on television and one thing which amazed me is the excessive use of stock and flavouring ingredients – even by famous cooks. My expert advisers, the ordinary people of Greece and Italy, whom I consult and interview regularly, do not rely on any special flavouring ingredients to produce their very appetising dishes.

Without the traditional old-style bread – called sourdough these days – the Mediterranean diet does not taste the same. Unlike western practices bread is not spread with butter. It is instead dipped in the food’s juices which, in addition to nutritional benefits, brings extra flavours.

Bread was always on the table and people could help themselves. For shy children, like myself, bread was an easy way of filling up your stomach when visiting. Good manners suggested you wait to be offered food – but not for bread.

The importance of fresh seasonal ingredients, preferably home or locally produced without artificial fertilisers, is often overlooked. Unfortunately, the availabitlity of most of the popular vegetables throughout the year does not help the consumer to choose fruit and vegetables according to season. Unless my garden produces tomatoes I do not buy them. The strong flavour associated with my tomatoes brings intense pleasure during the five months I have them (January to May, often longer).

Fresh fruit, which was usually eaten when it was fully ripe, was another food which was enjoyed. It was eaten as a dessert or as a snack – very often straight from the tree, when the appetite went wild. It is not surprising that many Greek and Italian migrants grow fruit and vegetables in their backyards. Figs and grapes are two fruits which stand out.

Olive oil, called virgin or extra virgin nowadays, is a must for achieving the special flavours of the Mediterranean. Olive industry people promote olive oil as healthy, but the officially classified olive oil is a highly processed product deprived of antioxidants and its special flavour and aroma. It often comes under the misleading names of pure, 100%, extra light etc. It is not only the newcomers who are confused. Even the traditional users of olive oil are confussed. When buying olive oil they think they are getting their traditional olive oil.

The following olive oil classification is based on modern definitions and will help you buy on an informed basis:
Extra virgin olive oil: has less than 0.8% acidity.
Virgin olive oil: has less than 3% acidity.
Refined olive oil: it is colourless, odourless, tasteless olive oil – not available on the market.
Olive oil: a blend of refined olive oil (more than 70%) and virgin olive oil (less than 30%).
Refined olive pomace olive oil: similar to refined.
Olive pomace olive oil: mixture of virgin (as low as 5%) and refined olive pomace-olive oil.

Olives enhance the flavour of vegetarian food and they were regarded as the food of the poor. They were always on the table for people to help themselves during a meal but they were not eaten on their own. With each mouthful it is customary to have one or part of an olive.

Herbs, mainly used dry because of more intense flavours, were another flavour-enhancing ingredient.

Garlic might be regarded as antisocial but it is appetising, flavour-enhancing and filling. It is an underestimated ingredient of the Mediterranean diet which deserves to be restored to its former place. The importance of garlic is demonstrated by the complaint of an 85 year old woman who lives in a remote village of Crete. She told her visiting son that she had run out of garlic and so it was difficult to sit down to eat. Many of the Cretan people I have interviewed reported regular consumption of garlic.

Although lemons have originated in Asia, the Mediterranean gave them prominence. The combination of olive oil and lemons brings that very special Mediterranean flavour. Lemon is sour while olive oil is sweet. And the two balance and enhance each other.

Vino puro, as my Italian neighbour calls his home-made wine, is a must for a good meal. Wine and other spirits are taken during the meal – not before or after the meal. The wine was normally dry red – rich in antioxidants. (A strong colour is normally associated with increased antioxidant content.)

Grappa – distilled wine – is another typical alcoholic drink. As with wine it was drunk with food and always before wine – not after.

The customs and food practices must be also taken into consideration in order to develop a better understanding of a diet. Often, these practices have important nutritional value. For example, when tomatoes are cooked with olive oil there is an enhancement of flavour, but there is also an increase in the amount of lycopene in a form that is easier for the body to absorb. (Lycopene, which is regarded as a strong antioxidant, is fat soluble and despite extensive cooking is not destroyed.)

The practice of eating legumes with bread, in addition to enhancing the flavour, contributes to a balanced protein intake. Legumes are the meat of the masses but unlike meat, fish and dairy foods which provide a full range of proteins, legumes are deficient in some proteins. Although bread is not a high protein food, its proteins complement those of the legumes for a balanced protein intake.

Another beneficial practice is the traditional slow rising bread. Although zinc is present in the grain it is bound by the presence of bran (in wholemeal bread) and is not available for the body to absorb. The chemical reactions which take place during the rising of bread change zinc into an absorbable form. The longer the rising time the greater the bioavailability of zinc.

Critics will say, how can you argue that this diet is sustainable when the Mediterranean people yielded to western fast food practices? The power of imitating the privileged and the affluent is very strong and no group of people is immune from this phenomenon. Hopefully, as with fashion, these developments are cyclical and since there are no nutritional drawbacks of this diet, there is optimism of a substantial revival of the Mediterranean diet.

Perhaps, we might not have any option:

  • Despite the proliferation of special diets none of these have been successful.
  • The destruction of the natural environment might prove to be the catalyst for a return to this environment friendly diet.
  • The health care budgets of developed countries are on the increase while diet supplements (vitamins, antioxidants and other supplements) draw heavily on the private purse.

In earlier times the choice of food was simple and based on unprocessed seasonal produce – with very little if any processing. Nowadays it is based on complex labelling information for calories, cholesterol, salt etc. And, despite the greater understanding of nutrients, consumer confusion is overwhelming.

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The traditional Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet (i.e. the diet of this region before the 1960’s) is promoted as healthy and protective against disease. The Greek diet is regarded as the prototype Mediterranean diet. Traditionally, due to their dietary and lifestyle practices, the Greeks have very good health and life expectancy – without an expensive health care system. In Greece, the people of the island of Crete have a better health record and perhaps not surprisingly, the highest consumption of olive oil (25 litres per capita) in the world.

The Greek traditional diet is based largely on fresh, unprocessed seasonal plant foods. It is low in saturated fat and high in dietary fibre, starch, antioxidant vitamins (from cereals, fruit and vegetables) and polyphenols (from wine and olive oil).