Greek Cuisine and Good Health

     The Mediterranean Diet was first publicized in 1945 by the American doctor and nutritionist Ancel Keys, who was stationed in Salerno, Italy.  His researches showed him that there was a very low incidence of heart disease amongst the peoples of southern Italy and Greece - and all this in spite of the fact that they consumed about 40 percent of their caloric intake in the form of fat. 
     This led Dr. Keys to the conclusion that it wasn't just total fat consumption that mattered in the incidence of cardiovascular disease, but also the kind of fat consumed.  These Mediterranean peoples consumed a huge amount of olive oil, but a relatively low amount of saturated animal fat, and virtually no processed or hydrogenated fats.  They also ate a generous supply of deep water fish with its beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids.
     Dr. Keys and his wife went on to promote a diet based on his findings, which they called the Mediterranean Diet.  Perhaps the good doctor himself was the best proof that his diet worked: Dr. Keys lived to a ripe old age, and even became a centennarian, dying from old age just a couple of months before his 101st birthday. 
     In 1993, the Mediterranean Diet was introduced and popularized in a big way by an organization called the Oldways Preservation Trust in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health and the United Nations World Health Organization.  This was done partially in response to the prevailing propaganda of the time, promoted by the low fat and no fat diets, that all fat was bad.  The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes satisfaction over deprivation, and shows that it's actually possible to eat healthy food that tastes great.  Studies have shown that the Mediterranean Diet reduces the risk of obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, abnormal glucose metabolism, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and many forms of cancer.


Guidelines for the Mediterranean Diet

     You don't have to actually cook and eat the authentic local dishes of the Greeks, Italians and other Mediterranean peoples to follow the Mediterranean Diet and enjoy its benefits.  However, there are a few guidelines that you must follow if you want to "go Mediterranean":
     1)  Make Olive Oil your primary source of dietary fat.
     2)  Incorporate a wide variety and abundance of plant-based foods into your diet: fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
     3)  Eat low to moderate amounts of fish and poultry weekly.
     4)  Eat low to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt daily.
     5)  Drink a moderate amount of wine daily for heart and circulatory system health - one to two glasses daily for a man, and one glass daily for a woman.
     Sounds simple, doesn't it?  That's because it is!  So, enjoy your food!  Eat, drink, and be merry!


The Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid

     All diets have food pyramids, which show how the diet is structured and how the various food groups are proportioned, or prioritized.  The Mediterranean Diet is no exception.

     Please click on the pyramid to the right, which links you to the Food Pyramid for the Mediterranean Diet, brought to you courtesy of Oldways Preservation Trust and MediterraneanMark.Org.  The lower down the food pyramid you go, the greater the quantity of that food group, and the more frequently it must be consumed. 
     The food groups at the bottom of the pyramid are those that are consumed on a daily basis, with breads, carbohydrates and whole grains forming its foundation.  The daily portion of the pyramid consists of plant-based foods, cheese and yogurt, and olive oil. 
     The weekly part of the pyramid consists of fish, poultry, eggs and sweets.  Red meats fall into the monthly group at the very top of the pyramid.


Food Groups in the Mediterranean Diet


     As you can see from the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid, there are many different food groups in the Mediterranean Diet, which is not lacking in any diversity.  To better understand the Mediterranean way of eating, we need to look at how the Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples approach each of these food groups.
     A key precept of Mediterranean cuisine is that all food should be simply but tastefully prepared, to enhance but not obscure the flavor of the principal ingredients.  There's also an emphasis on eating fresh, local ingredients, in season.
     Grains:  The foundation of the Mediterranean Diet is breads and grains, which are considered to be the staff of life.  Although whole grain breads, both leavened and unleavened, form the mainstay of this food group, there are many other tasty and nutritious alternatives to breads in the diet, most notably various kinds of pasta, but also bulgur wheat, rice, couscous, and corn mush, or polenta. 
     Fruits:  Fresh fruit, in season, often makes for a simple dessert eaten at the end of a meal.  The majority of the fresh fruit consumed in the Mediterranean Diet are fruits of the Rose family - apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries - but some, like grapes, melons, figs, oranges and tangerines, are not. 
     Beans and Legumes:  Beans and legumes are the main vegetarian sources of protein in the Mediterranean Diet.  They include lentils, chickpeas or garbanzos, butter beans, white beans, fava beans, green beans and peas.  Mediterranean cuisine has devised a wide variety of delicious and ingenious ways of preparing them.  Lentils are cooked up with vegetables and spices in a delicious, savoury stew.  Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are ground to a powder and mixed with cumin, garlic, sesame tahini and water to form a delicious spread called hummus.  Each kind of bean is prepared with an eye towards enhancing its inherent flavor and virtues. 
     Nuts and Seeds:  Nuts and seeds round out and add diversity to the vegetarian protein sources in the Mediterranean Diet.  They are consumed and used in a wide variety of ways.  Almonds are usually eaten by themselves, or with dried fruit for dessert.  Walnuts or pine nuts are good sprinkled on salads, as are sunflower seeds.  Sesame seeds can be mixed with honey in dessert confections, or made into a paste called tahini that can be used to make desserts, dressings, or spreads. 
     Vegetables:  The Mediterranean Diet's approach to vegetables is to use a wide variety of vegetables that appeal to the eye with a kaleidoscope of colors, and to the taste buds with their crisp, fresh flavor.  Mixing colors has been shown to ensure a good diversity and balance of minerals and other nutrients in the vegetables you consume.  The vegetables are prepared, wherever possible, with a minimum of cooking, to bring out their freshness; favorite cooking methods are to lightly sautee, steam, or grill the vegetables.  The favorite vegetables of Mediterranean cuisine fall mainly into a few different families: 
     Umbelliferae (Carrot family):  carrots, parsley, fresh dill, fresh fennel, parsnips, celery, burnet-saxifrage, fresh lovage.
     Cucurbitaceae (Squash family):  cucumbers, squash, pumpkin
     Solanaceae (Nightshade family):  tomato, eggplant, red, yellow or green bell peppers, potatoes
     Liliaceae (Lilly family):  onions, garlic, leeks, chives
     Miscellaneous / Other:  lettuce, endives, spinach, artichokes, asparagus


     Olive Oil and Olives:  Ever since the goddess Athena gave the olive tree to the Ahtenians, olives and olive oil have been a mainstay of the diet for Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples.  Very few other plants have so many uses; the olive and its oil are used for food, medicine, cosmetics, lighting and much more. 
     Olive oil has a wide variety of traditional medicinal uses.  Hippocrates used it for curing gastric and duodenal ulcers, muscular pains, and even for treating cholera.  Olive oil removes gravelly deposits from the bile and improves its flow; it's also a gentle laxative for children.  Olive oil is rubbed into a baby's gums to soothe teething pains.  Spanish physicians in the 19th century discovered that olive oil was more effective than quinine in treating malaria and other intermittent fevers. 
     Modern medical research into olive oil has focused on its benefits for cardiovascular health and preventing hardening of the arteries and coronary heart disease.  This is due not only to the monounsaturated fatty acids like Oleic acid contained in the oil, but also to its high content of antioxidants: vitamins A and E, flavonoids and polyphenols.  Other studies have shown that olive oil lowers the risk of breast cancer in women, helps diabetics control their blood sugar levels, and not only lowers cholesterol levels in the blood but increases the ratio of HDL, or good cholesterol, over LDL, or bad cholesterol.
     Olive oil has a number of other distinctive virtues.  Galen considered it to be perfectly balanced between all of the Four Basic Qualities - Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry.  Olive oil is extremely stable, and keeps for a very long time without going rancid; it also has a very high smoke point, and can tolerate a lot of heat without spoiling. 
     All of these virtues, and particularly the heart protective ones, make olive oil the main fat source of the Mediterranean Diet.  Mediterranean peoples traditionally consume a huge amount of olive oil - up to five gallons per year, and put it on everything.  Because olive oil is their primary fat source, their cardiovascular disease rates remain low.
     Not surprisingly, olives share many of the same nutrients, antioxidants and health benefits as the oil.  In addition to the oils and antioxidant nutrients, olives are also rich in beta carotene, calcium and iron, as well as dietary fiber and a modest amount of protein.  Make sure to eat dietetically prepared olives, which have a low salt content. 
     Cheese and Yogurt:  In the United States and other developed Western nations, we eat too many dairy products, and the ones we do eat aren't that good for your health.  Too much milk leads to too much phlegm accumulation, and lowered resistance to colds and respiratory infections.  Other dairy favorites, like butter and aged or processed cheeses, are too high in fats and cholesterol.
     The Mediterranean Diet goes lighter on the dairy, and the dairy that is consumed is cultured for easier digestion, and is generally healthier to eat.  Fresh cheeses like Feta and Ricotta are preferred over aged cheeses, which are higher in fats and cholesterol.  And yogurt is great for cultivating friendly intestinal bacteria, and is also used for salad dressings, like Tzatziki.
     Meat is not consumed on a daily basis in the Mediterranean Diet.  Rather, meat is consumed about three to four times per week. 
     Fish and Seafood is the most frequently eaten type of meat, and is also the most healthful.  Deep water fish are also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for a healthy heart and circulatory system.  Other seafood eaten in Greek and Mediterranean cuisine include fish eggs or roe, squid or calamari, and shellfish.  Eating grilled fish, caught fresh, with garlic sauce and polenta, is delicious!
     Poultry and Eggs:  Poultry is the next most commonly eaten type of meat in the Mediterranean Diet after fish.  Chicken is probably the most commonly eaten form of fowl, although duck and quail are also eaten, in preference to the larger birds like turkey.  Eggs are eaten occasionally, mainly for breakfast, but not on a daily basis. 
     Sweets and Desserts:  Sweets and desserts are also not eaten on a daily basis, but are relished and enjoyed when eaten as a special treat.  The simplest and most natural form of sweet dessert is dried fruit, such as figs, apricots or dates.  After this, there are other confections, like halvah, made from honey, nuts and nut butters, as well as baklavah, made from honey, nuts and filo pastry. 
     Red Meat:  In the traditional Mediterranean Diet, as it was consumed in the 1960s, red meat was eaten quite rarely.  It was eaten only on special occasions, probably no more than a few times monthly.  Red meat consists mainly of ground beef, cooked into dishes like Moussaka, or lamb, traditionally eaten at Easter time. 
     Wine:  The Mediterranean Diet recommends consuming low to moderate amounts of wine daily for heart and circulatory system health.  The alcohol in wine stimulates the heart and circulation, and is a vasodilator that opens the blood vessels; alcohol's down side is its potential to injure the liver  from excess consumption, and its tendency to encourage weight gain as a form of concentrated, empty calories. 
     The cardioprotective benefiits of wine come chiefly from various polyphenols and flavonoids found in the skin of the grapes.  Red wine, which is fermented with the skins, is higher in these protective antioxidants than white wine.  The main polyphenol that has been studied is resveratrol, which raises the level of HDL (High Density Lipoproteins, or good cholesterol) in the blood, prevents blood clotting, and inhibits tumor growth.  Flavonoids are antioxidants that prevent blood clots and reduce the formation of arterial plaque. 
     Water:  The Mediterranean Diet recommends that, in addition to the wine and other fluids consumed, you drink at least six glasses of water daily.  In hot weather, or with vigorous physical activity, you should consume more.  The best water comes from natural artesian wells, or springs.


Internet Resources

     Look up Mediterranean Diet in a Google search and you will find a wealth of informative articles and sites.  The official website of the Oldways Preservation Trust, the main arganization promoting the Mediterranean Diet, is:
     Perhaps the most comprehensive and informative site about olive oil is the following:
     A lot of information on the medicinal uses of olive oil I got from: and:
     Wikipedia also has a great article about olive oil:

For information on the benefits of Red Wine for heart and circulatory system health, please visit:

Other Useful Links

Mediterranean Diet