Enjoy the experience of heart-healthy eating with these
delicious mediterranean dishes.
By Elaine Gavalas
Greeks love to celebrate life with an abundance of food,
dance, music and song, and will seize any occasion to host
a feast. Fortunately, all this partying may be good for us.
Modern research champions traditional Greek cuisine as the
heart-healthiest food in the world. Landmark studies
indicate the rural people of Crete and Greece have some of
the world's lowest rates of diet-linked disease and
obesity, and are among ethnic groups with the longest life
I grew up in a household where my grandfather and father
were Greek Orthodox priests, and it seemed as if every
weekend was an occasion for a glendi (party). I
was constantly attending a birthday, wedding, bridal
shower, baptism or celebration for someone's name day
(their Saint's feast day). Then there were our yearly
celebrations, including the Greek parade, the annual
glendi of our patriotis (fellow
countrymen) from Arcadia and Laconia (my family's home
regions in Greece), and such religious holidays as
Christmas and Easter. With all our aunts, uncles, cousins,
nieces, nephews, koumbados (godparents),
sembetheros (relatives by marriage) and
patriotis, my family barely had time to digest
before the next gathering was upon us!
As proudly explained by Gus, father of the bride in the hit
movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding , Greece
has given the world many gifts, from architecture to
philosophy. Certainly one of Greece's most valuable
contributions is its cuisine.
At the core of the traditional Greek diet are dark-green
leafy vegetables (often wild-gathered), including
dandelions, spinach, mustard, fennel, cumin and purslane;
fresh fruits such as figs, pears, plums, grapes, melons and
oranges; high-fiber whole grains, beans and lentils;
complex carbohydrate-rich pastas and breads; olive oil;
nuts; and such herbs and spices as garlic, oregano, bay
leaves, cinnamon and cloves.
Rich in immune-boosting antioxidants, the Greek diet
provides cancer-fighting compounds, healthful omega-3 fatty
acids and colon-cleansing fiber, which all help lower the
risks of diet linked diseases, including heart disease,
obesity and diabetes. A 2003 study conducted jointly by
researchers at the University of Athens in Greece and
Harvard University found that people who consumed a
traditional Greek diet experienced a 33 percent lower risk
of death from heart disease and a 24 percent lower risk of
death from cancer.
Many Greek dishes contain cheeses, such as feta made from
goat's or sheep's milk. These cheeses are lower in fat and
easier to digest than those from cow's milk. Greeks enjoy
thick, creamy goat-milk yogurt with fresh fruit and a
drizzle of honey.
Greek cuisine is noted for its lamb dishes, but lamb is
traditionally only eaten on special occasions. More often,
Greek meals include fish (anchovies, cod, flounder and
tuna, for example) in moderate portions throughout the
week. As shown in several studies, the omega-3 fatty acids
in fish oils help prevent heart attacks and high blood
OLIVE OIL POWER
The ancient Greeks regarded olive oil as a gift from the
gods—olive trees were valued as much as gold. Modern
nutrition also places high value on olive oil, finding that
it offers numerous health benefits. The traditional rural
Greek diet features olive oil as the principal fat, rather
than butter and margarine. Olive oil is high in
monounsaturated fat, and a 1989 study revealed that it
raises levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol while lowering
artery-clogging LDL ("bad") cholesterol.
Numerous studies, including one published by the
American Heart Association, have shown that people
who eat a high monounsaturated fat diet, such as
the traditional Greek diet, have a lower risk of heart
disease than people who eat more saturated fats, which
include butter and margarine.
Researchers also found that people who consume olive oil
have a lower risk for other diseases, too. Studies
conducted by Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos at the Harvard
School of Public Health indicate a link between olive oil
consumption and a lower incidence of breast cancer and
And a 1999 study conducted by Dr. Athena Linos and
colleagues at the University of Athens Medical School
showed that the Mediterranean diet may even help protect
against rheumatoid arthritis. People who consumed olive oil
and lots of cooked vegetables had a 39 percent lower risk
of developing this joint disease.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
Greek food may taste delicious, but the secret behind the
healthy Mediterranean diet lies not in consuming more
Kalamata olives and fish, but in adopting the entire Greek
style of eating.
For guidance, you can turn to the Mediterranean food
pyramid, created by experts at the Harvard School of Public
Health, and the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust (a
nonprofit food issues think tank). These guidelines are
based on the dietary habits of rural Greeks before 1960,
when heart disease rates in Greece were 90 percent lower
than those in the United States.
The base of the pyramid is daily exercise, followed by the
traditional Greek foods we should all eat more of, notably
whole (rather than processed) grains, and generous servings
of fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans. Olive oil, cheese
and yogurt also make the list of daily foods, but need to
be eaten in exchange for—not in addition
to—other, less healthy fats.
Although meat is an important part of the pyramid, it isn't
eaten on a daily basis, and red meat is recommended only a
few times a month and in small portions. Unlike the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid, the
Mediterranean pyramid recognizes the health benefits of red
wine and suggests drinking a glass a day.
According to Greek mythology, it was the god Dionysus, son
of Zeus, who gave humankind the vine and taught the Greeks
how to cultivate and ferment the sacred wine. The Greek
saying, "The gods are only a memory, but one can taste the
gods in the wine," corresponds with the ageless Greek
tradition of enjoying a glass of wine at almost every meal.
Research conducted by Dr. D.K. Das and colleagues at the
University of Connecticut School of Medicine suggests that
red wine contains flavonoid antioxidants and resveratrol,
an organic compound from grape skins that may lower the
risk of blood clots and heart attacks. In 2002, researchers
in France found that drinking red wine in moderation may
even increase HDL cholesterol levels.
The Mediterranean food pyramid recommends drinking about a
glass of wine a day to promote good health. (For some
people, though, drinking wine is not advisable. For
example, women who are pregnant or people who take
medications that might interact with alcohol should not
Greek food is a wise choice, whether you're at risk for
high cholesterol, suffering from high blood pressure,
trying to stave off obesity or just looking for
mouth-watering dishes to satisfy your appetite. Try the
classic recipes on Page 104—they highlight the
great-tasting and healthy ingredients of Greek cuisine that
help protect against heart disease and certain types of
cancer. Make these dishes individually or cook them all for
a healthy, happy feast with family and friends!
Elaine Gavalas, author of Secrets of Fat-Free Greek
Cooking, is a nutritionist, exercise physiologist and
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