More than 60% of New Yorker's are not going to cook dinner tonight, and if you are one of them you just had a scent memory of all those delicious aromas arising from that Greek restaurant near your office. Is Greek cuisine a healthful meal choice? As with any restaurant, Greek or otherwise, there are healthy choices and less-than-healthy choices on the menu. Some of the Greek classics such as gyros, spanakopita, dolmadakia, and fried squid can be loaded with sodium and fat.
The traditional Greek diet is known for the simple preparation of tasty food made in Greece, which has shaped the dietary habits of Greeks from ancient times up to the present.
Its main advantage is that the Greek diet is based on three principles: Variety – Moderation – Balance.
Balance: refers to the intake of food from all groups (dairy, fruit, vegetables, cereals, pasta, pulses, fish, poultry, red meat, olive oil, nuts), so that all nutrients are taken in quantities that not only allow the body to function well, but also maintain body weight at normal levels.
Moderation: There are no forbidden foods, nor foods that should be consumed in excess. All food contributes to covering nutritional needs, so long as it is eaten in normal quantities and at the correct frequency. All food has something to offer to our body: Well-being, taste, nutrition!!!
Variety: For achieving a good quality diet, WHO officials have formulated recommendations based on separating food into groups and placing them in the Healthy Eating Pyramid. Thus, by consuming food from all food groups with the frequency stipulated in the pyramid, we can receive all nutrients in the correct amounts.
The most frequently encountered food categories in Greek cooking are the following:
Pulses (lentils, beans, chickpeas): Pulses constitute food of high biological value, as they contain significant amounts of protein and carbohydrates, nutrients which are necessary for the human body. Carbohydrates give us energy, whilst proteins are the main component of structural tissue. We would not be exaggerating by stating that out of all food in the plant kingdom, pulses and cereals have the highest content in protein, even up to 20 - 25%. Of equal importance is the fibre content of pulses, which on the one hand helps the smooth functioning of the small intestine and on the other hand contributes to better cholesterol control. Furthermore, they are a good source of vitamin B complex, iron and potassium. Pulses are packed with nutrients, which makes them a valuable staple in the traditional Greek diet.
Vegetables cooked in olive oil (ladera) (green beans, peas, aubergines, artichokes, ratatouille): they play a leading role in Greek cuisine and are a good option either as a main meal or instead of a salad. When combined with cheese, whole grain bread and olives they constitute a complete meal, if we also ingest the primary macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, good monounsaturated fatty acids).
Rice-based meals cooked in olive oil (gemista-stuffed vegetables, spinach with rice, dolma yalanji): these foods provide our body with instant -as well as long lasting- energy, as they are rich in both simple and complex carbohydrates that break down into glucose – a necessary fuel for our cells. The importance of these meals stems from their belonging to the group of cereals, which make up the basis of our nutrition. As rice does not contain gluten, these are dishes that can be consumed by persons with gluten intolerance, known as celiac, offering them all the nutritional benefits of cereals. In addition, the combination of rice with vegetables such as onions, dill, spinach, vine leaves, help the intestine function better.
Furthermore, the use of herbs and olive oil features prominently in Greek cooking. The most frequently used herbs are basil, dill, parsley and oregano. These ingredients add more than just flavor; in an analysis performed in the US, these ranked amongst the first 50 out of more than 1,000 foods with the greatest content in antioxidants. By using more herbs and spices in cooking, we can reduce our salt intake, which is an equally important parameter in enhancing health.
Olive oil is one of the main sources of fat in the Greek diet, which is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, contributing to the prevention of chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular, Alzheimer, cancer). At the same time, the addition of olive oil to salads and cooking helps protect from oxidation and stimulates vitamin absorption. The Kalamata olive, from the town of the same name, is the large, meaty black olive commonly found atop the popular "Greek salad." Though olives are high in sodium, the tiny fruit contains oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that that may help to lower cholesterol.
Pita, the round bread consumed with Greek cuisine, is baked so an air pocket remains in the middle, perfect for holding veggies or scoops of hummus, tabbouleh, or feta cheese. Pita bread is relatively low in fat, but if the menu offers it, opt for the whole-wheat or whole-grain variety of pita to pack in a little more fibre, iron, and protein than unenriched white pita. Pita is another item to eat in moderation. One pocket bread can contain about 170 calories and about 14% of your recommended daily sodium limit.
Goat's milk is the main ingredient in feta cheese, the creamy, savoury cheese commonly crumbled into Greek food. A serving of feta cheese adds its flavour for fewer calories and grams of fat, as well as less cholesterol, than a comparable amount of cheddar cheese.
A salad is usually a healthful menu choice. And one of the most popular dishes on any Greek restaurant menu is the "Greek salad." This bed of greens is topped by a bunch of good-for-you foods - fresh tomatoes, cucumber, onions, olives, feta cheese, olive oil, and a dash of oregano.
It's said that one of the secrets of Greek cuisine is the proper use of herbs and spices. Along with flavour, herbs and spices bring antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals to the plate. Dishes are filled with a variety of aromatic herbs, including oregano (rigani), rosemary (dendrolivano), thyme (thymari), sage (faskomilo), and mint (diosmos). Cloves (garifalo), cumin, sesame seeds, and cinnamon add spice to breads, sweets, sauces, and meats.
The variety of foods that make up Greek traditional cooking has many benefits for human health:
- reducing the risk of heart disease
- preventing breast cancer
- helping fight against obesity
The 10 “golden” tips of the Greek Mediterranean Diet
1. Consume 5-7 servings of fruit and vegetables daily
2. Cook pulses or vegetables cooked in oil or rice based meals cooked in oil 2 – 3 times a week
3. Eat 2-3 servings of fish and seafood a week
4. Opt for whole grains
5. Limit the intake of red meat and processed meat
6. Alcohol: Limit your alcohol intake to 2 servings for men and 1 for women
7. Season your food and salads liberally with aromatic herbs, lemon, vinegar, herbs and spices
8. Olive oil: Use it as your main source of fat
Avoid food such as: crisps, chocolate, puff pastry, pies and sweets as they contain large amounts of fatty acids, sugar and salt
9. Weight: Maintain your weight at normal levels (Body Mass Index: 18.5-25kg/m2).
10. Exercise: Work out for at least 30 minutes every day