This past year, we have spent most of our holidays traveling in Greece. In Stoupa and the Peloponnese coast, the island of Zakynthos off the west coast of Greece, in the Ionian Sea, as well as the islands of Kos and Rhodes, located in the eastern Aegean Sea near Turkey. During these travels we have soaked up the sun, swam in its turquoise seas and savored Greek cuisine–and what I have learned is that eating (and socializing) to Greeks is life itself.
Greeks have been following a traditional Greek diet since ancient times. The mainstays of this diet were three foods: wheat and barley (made into beer, porridge, flatbread or soup), olive oil, and wine, otherwise known as the Mediterranean Triad. Eating like a Greek means:
The Mediterranean approach is a diet devoid of packaged, processed foods, and rich in the whole foods and natural drinks. Foods such as wild greens, yogurt, fresh fruits, nuts, seafood, beans, whole grains, fresh herbs and spices, coffee, wine and meals cooked in olive oil. Foods that are local and seasonal.
Here are some of the essential foods to make the most of a healthier lifestyle by following an authentic Mediterranean Diet. One that will give you the ideal mixture of fats, proteins, fibers, and healthy nutrients.
Olive Oil: Greece has the highest olive oil intake per person in the world. They consume, on average, 24 liters per person, per year. It’s no wonder—the fatty acids and antioxidants in it have some powerful health benefits. Olive oil helps reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and control insulin levels in the body. Best yet, olive oil helps your body metabolize fat and sugar so that fat doesn’t accumulate around the belly.
Greek yogurt: This rich, creamy textured and tasty superfood supports everything from bone health, to weight loss, to regularity. It’s high in protein, helps stabilize blood sugar levels and keeps us feeling full. It’s an excellent source of good-for-you bacteria probiotics—the microbial flora in your intestines needed to break down food—they regulate your digestive system and reduce bloating.
Vegetables and fruit: The Mediterranean diet consists of loads of vegetables and fruit—an average of nine servings every day, eaten fresh, in season, for the most flavor. Boosting with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and a myriad of phytonutrients, they are key to longevity and health. Go beyond cucumbers and tomatoes and try Mediterranean produce such as leafy wild greens (hortas). Similar tasting to Swiss chard—delicious.
Beans and legumes: Lentils, dried peas and beans are a healthy source of protein and one of the best natural sources of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, all with virtually no fat —exactly what we need to keep our bellies full and bodies well-balanced. With a host of choices on every menu, I especially love Greek prepared jumbo lima beans, black-eyed and split yellow peas.
Seafood: The sea plays as significant a role in the Mediterranean diet. Fish and shellfish are rich in marine omega-3 fatty acids—the smart fats, the only type of essential fatty acids that help boost our metabolism, control blood sugar, and regulate our bodies fat-burning hormones. Greeks are masters at cooking freshly caught fish, octopus, calamari and cuttlefish and take care to prepare it simply so that the exceptional taste of each different kind is retained.
Whole grains: Complex carbs in the form of whole grains, such as Greek crusty whole grain “village” bread and dishes made from bulgur (cracked whole wheat) and whole grain rice are a great energy source that won’t lead you to being hungry an hour later. They are broken down more slowly by the body and have additional nutrients that help us get the maximum energy from the foods we eat.They also increase our levels of the “feel-good hormone” serotonin, which can help control cravings and curb overeating.
Wine: The Greeks wholeheartedly embrace the benefits of drinking a glass (or two) of wine each day. Wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, which gives the metabolism a boost. It helps our muscles’ ability to absorb glucose from food, meaning that more calories go into muscles and fewer go into fat cells. It also stimulates “anti-aging” enzymes called sirtuins, which are thought to repair DNA and prevent cell death. Drink up. Yia mas!
Garlic, aromatic herbs and spices: Oregano, basil, thyme, mint and other herbs grown in Greece are flavorful additives and good sources of antioxidants that help rev up the metabolism, reduce blood sugar, and decrease cravings for sugary, fatty foods, among other things. In Mediterranean countries, garlic is known as a miracle herb that helps lower blood pressure and balance and harmonize the flow of the vital energies throughout the body, keeping arteries healthy, cholesterol levels under control and digestion in sync. Add it to dishes for flavor and color in instead of extra salt.
Nuts: Nuts are also a staple food in Mediterranean countries and are high in antioxidants, protein, fiber, and healthy fats—the type of fat that doesn’t get stuck in the arteries. Nuts contain high amounts of nearly every nutrient shown to boost metabolism, burn fat and increase feelings of being full. Be aware though, nuts are high in calories! For the healthiest choice, choose walnuts or almonds. They taste great chopped up and sprinkle d over Greek yogurt with a little honey. Yum.
Meat, poultry and eggs: A traditional Greek diet doesn’t include much meat. Meat makes only an occasional appearance, and when it does, it’s consumed in smaller portions less often or added in small amounts to make dishes more flavorful.
Just as important as it is to enjoy a healthy diet, there are a couple other things I learned aside from eating like a Greek:
Enjoy sleep: Greeks nap. Sleeping in the afternoon enables you to have two lives in one day, especially in the summer. Dinner is often eaten at 10pm, so be surprised when you are sitting in a restaurant alone with other travelers at 7pm.
Be communicative and socialise: Greeks are very vocal and loud (I think we all saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding). They say what’s on their mind and then get on with things. You’d think everybody is arguing, no, they just speak out loud. Perhaps local red wine has something to with that (wink).
So get some rest, enjoy slow lingering meals with family and friends and fill up on conversation, not fatty processed foods!