Eating Our Way to Better Health Using the Traditional Greek Mediterranean Diet

While researchers are still trying to define what is known about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, we at our Medical Clinic in Athens and Thessaloniki are using this diet therapeutically.

In the past seven years we have observed a tremendous change in the health of our patients, not only on the physical level but on the mental and emotional level as well.

In the Clinic we hold practical teaching sessions, where patients come to learn the basics of how to use and prepare traditional foods, so as to preserve the vitality of the nutrients contained in the foods.  We also teach them how to enrich their meals with different herbs and spices used in traditional recipes, and thus obtain a better

understanding of the healthy food habits of their ancestors.

As our patients begin to put this knowledge into practice, the longer they work with this diet, the more their chronic problems begin to improve.

The regimen followed

In our Clinic we make certain our patients understand that the quality of the foods they use affects the life and health of their bodies. Therefore we insist the foods they choose should be fresh, unprocessed, seasonal, of a large variety, and if possibly organic.

Fats (Olive Oil and edible Olives)

The fats which we recommend are mainly olive oil, low in saturated fat and linoleic acid and rich in monosaturated fatty acids and phenolic compounds,

which have been shown to exert potent beneficial actions.  We stress the oil must be extra virgin, cold pressed like in the old days, and must be kept in dark opaque glass containers, because light oxidizes the oil a thousand times faster than darkness.

Olives have been eating since ancient times, apart from being a food of the farming communities, nomads, travelers and the army.   Olives were one of the most important appetizers in the ancient world.  For this reason, olives were also used on patients as a form of therapy, especially in cases which showed symptoms of lack of appetite.  In the Roman rich symposiums they were served as a starter at the beginning of a meal and desert at the end of the meal.  During periods of fasting in the Orthodox Church oil is forbidden but olives are allowed. All the varieties are edible regardless of the size of the pit or whether they are fleshy or not.  They fall into two categories:  green ones that are harvested almost unripe, and black ones collected when ripe. Olives are also added in different recipes.

Fresh vegetables and wild greens, full of phytochemicals, nature’s  first line of defense, protect the human body against free radical damage and age related degeneration, not to mention viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

Greece is one of the richest sources of plant life in Europe. Wild greens are a significant component of what is called the “Healthy Greek Diet”.  Greeks eat large quantities of greens and vegetables. These are basic ingredients in many local dishes. We insist that fresh vegetables and aromatic plants are used both cooked and

raw in the same meal.  The reason is that some nutrients like lycopene in tomatoes and pro-vitamin A in carrots are more bio-available when they have undergone treatment or cooking.  On the other hand, most other nutrients are radically reduced by such treatment and cooking.  In addition, cooking destroys their many enzymes.

That’s why we insist on combining fresh raw salads prepared with wild leafy greens, like wild purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a little plant with succulent (fleshy) leaves rich in omega 3 fatty acids, or the peppery sharp tasting rocket.

For patients who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and cannot handle large amounts of fiber, we suggest that they juice their raw vegetables in order to get all the beneficial nutrients.

Fruits

We suggest that our patients eat their fruits only in season, partly because this way they eat a much larger variety of fruits than if they could have a favorite fruit the year round. We insist on ripe fruits, because in the process of ripening their starches break down to monosaccharide sugars, which are easier to absorb by these patients with malabsorption problems.  Dried fruits like raisins and dried figs maybe used occasionally, if there is no sensitivity to sulfur.   Also soaking the dry fruit in warm water overnight will make them more digestible, breaking down the concentrated sugars since some people may be insulin sensitive.  For diabetics we recommend fruits which have a low glycemic index. Fresh fruit should be eaten always between meals and on its own as a snack, and no more than 3-4 serving per day.

Legumes or pulses

Legumes or pulses are one of the principal staples of the Traditional Greek Diet.

These are prepared with different herbs, with olive oil added at the end.  The very low glycemic index of legumes, abundant in slowly digested starches, helps keep the blood glucose at low levels, and equally, the ensuing pancreatic insulin response. Legumes are low in fat and high in protein. They are also good sources of flavonoids, contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, and are full of cardio-protective nutrients such as arginine, Vitamin E, the B vitamins including folic acid, and minerals such as calcium and zinc.

For people with intestinal problems, we recommend dried beans, lentils and split peas, but soaked for at least 10-12 hours prior to cooking, and the water discarded since it now contains also indigestible sugars. Legumes can be eaten in small amounts by such patients. We recommend legumes 2-3 times a week combined with fresh salad, or with small amount of dairy products and cooked fresh vegetables.

Meat

We suggest that consumption of meat should be in small amounts. Traditionally meat came from small free-ranging animals like lamb, goat, and poultry and least of all beef . Lamb and goat meat may be prepared stewed with fresh vegetables, or wild local greens, or roasted or baked and basted with fresh lemon juice, garlic, oregano, or thyme.  The fat of lamb meat contains 4 times more alpha-linoleic fatty acid, the precursor of the beneficial omega –eicopentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), than beef.  It also contains 50 % more oileic acid, just like that contained in olive oil; 50% less linoleic acid (LA) and only one half the arachidonic acid (AA) of beef, these precursors of the problematic eicosanoids.  The traditional lamb dishes of the Greeks despite the higher percentage of fat lambs are known to carry, lamb fat appears to contain superior fat to other fats coming from domesticated animals on nearly all counts.

The lamb meat is prepared with the vegetables and the herbs which are naturally wholesome ingredients and are part of the centuries old traditional gastronomic continuity. Today, scientific research continues to substantiate the important and powerful antioxidants these plants contain, their protective and preventive properties against many chronic and degenerative disease.

Fish

We recommend to our patients to eat the small fresh fish used traditionally by the Greeks. Such fish are sardines, anchovies, smelts, pilchard, whitebait, and others, swimming in schools away from polluted shores.  Small fish do not have the time to accumulate large quantities of heavy metals and other harmful elements.  In addition they may be eaten whole after they are cooked, supplying the most bioavailable calcium in their bones.  Available fresh all year round, they supply good protein and omega-3 fatty acids.  Fish is well combined with fresh raw green salads, and boiled greens. We recommend 2 to 3 servings per week.

Dairy products

The Greeks traditionally ate fermented milk products, derived mostly from goat and sheep.  We find that goat milk has a very low 3% in saturated fat, and goat cheese has a maximum of 18% fat.  Recent research has shown that fermented goat and sheep milk are rich in various friendly bacteria which promote a healthy digestive tract.  Goat’s milk is a lot closer to human milk in composition, and for children who are allergic or have an intolerance to casein, goat’s milk is sometimes recommended as a substitute for the lack of mother’s milk. It may be combined with cooked vegetables, salads or legumes. We recommend 2-3 servings per week.

Grain products

In much of rural Greece and until recently, each family’s needs for wheat, barley, and other cereals were supplied mainly by their own production, which covered the entire cycle of sowing, harvesting, threshing, and taking the grain to be ground into flour in the local water-mills or windmills.  Traditional bread was made with sourdough and baked in the house’s outdoor wood-fueled oven, usually making enough bread in one batch to cover the family’s needs for more than a week.

One of the characteristic foods of Greece, particularly on the islands, is the barley rusk that has been part of the Greek diet since antiquity.  In Ancient Greece, barley rusks were eaten by the poor, but were also part of the staple diet of the army, the navy, and travelers, because they could be preserved for long periods of time. Rusks are made more or less like bread, with barley flour but it is sliced and then baked a second time to dry it out.  The barley rusk, is still popular on Crete and often made in the shape of a ring or bagel.  The rusk stays edible a long time under almost any storage conditions.  We find that chewing these hard rusks, keeps the food longer in the mouth, promoting a better breakdown of the starch and easing digestion.

Nowadays the bread of commercial bakeries is soft and fluffy when fresh, but quickly goes stale. Sourdough bread is to be preferred because it gives a longer feeling of satiety and has a lower glycemic index, which means it does not raise the levels of blood glucose so suddenly.

In our clinic we do not promote the over-consumption of grain products, because we find that a large percentage of our patients do not tolerate them well. This may be due to the gluten contained in the grain (the glue that holds the domesticated grains together) which some percentage of the population may have a mild or severe gluten sensitivity.  Grains require careful preparation because they contain a number of antinutrients, or enzyme inhibitots that can lead to mineral deficiencies and also

put stress on the digestive organs.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds appear to have always been part of the Greek diet. Raw nuts such as almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, are recommended to our patients in small amounts on a daily basis.  Although nuts are high in fat, the fat is mostly unsaturated, which has positive effects on blood lipids, and levels of LDL and total cholesterol. We recommend the use of sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax-seeds and sunflower seeds on salads, or as snacks.  These precious little seeds are packed with a wealth of vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, B,D,E and K, folic acid, as well as the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc, and essential fatty acids.  Aside from satisfying the appetite, they also help to keep blood sugar levels low.

Aromatic plants and herbal teas

Since antiquity herbal teas and aromatic plants play an important role in Greek life.  Herbs have been used not only in traditional folklore medicine, but also to add flavour and season to the foods.  The culinary herbs with the highest antioxidant activity are oregano, sweet marjoram, bay, dill, thyme, rosemary and sage.

Herbs are also used as teas, which are excellent for nourishing and supporting the bodies needs for extra vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Popular teas are mountain tea, wild mint, dittany, chamomile, sage, basil, stinging nettle, fennel and Tillia europea.  Such teas have important implications for health as they ease digestion, help metabolize fats, and add health-promoting flavonoids.

We use the Traditional Greek Mediterranean Diet in our Clinic so as to reduce inflammation, stabilize blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol and blood pressure promote detoxification of the organism, and enhance the immune system response. We leave the rest to individual enterprise.

CENTER FOR NATURAL MEDICINE AND ACUPUNCTURE

Matina Chronopoulou, B.Sc., N.C.D.,  N.D.

Therapeutic Nutrition, Naturopathic Medicine

Dimitriou Soutsou 22, Athens / Tel 210.6400411 – 6932191724

Dr. Ioannis Liapis, M.D.

Neurologist – Psychiatrist – Acupuncurist

B. Georgiou 26 – Thessaloniki / Tel. 2310.839705

%d bloggers like this: