Emerging Health Paradox in Greece

By: Michael Engle

Currently, the national economy is not the only crisis for the country of Greece.  In a stunning and ironic development, more than 65% of Greek citizens are obese--the highest percentage of any EU member country. This growing problem in Greece is especially disappointing, when one considers that Greece is the cradle of the Mediterranean diet.  For centuries, the Greek lifestyle has been regarded as one of the healthiest diets, with its plethora of whole grains, olive oil, herbs and spices, and seafood, coupled with its societal aversion to (but not banishment of) red meat and salt. It is even recommended at times in order to lose or maintain ideal weight. Hence, the alarming paradox.

Predictably, Western lifestyles and influences can be blamed, as the Mediterranean region is poised to consume more unhealthy fats and sweets than ever.  As a result of these nontraditional diet practices and lower levels of physical activity, Greeks are increasingly prone to previously unprecedented maladies, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Apparently after countless generations of following the country's famous Mediterranean diet, the Greeks' divergence from their culinary tradition has yielded significant consequences.  Hopefully, as Greece works to restore its economy, the country can recommit to smarter, healthier, and, by default, more traditional and local eating habits in order to combat this new national dilemma as well.

Photo:  Katherine Martinelli

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The Mediterranean Diet: Healthy and Delicious

You may have heard that Europeans don't gain weight the same way as Americans, and that the key lies in the way they eat. It's definitely true that the Old World way of eating is fantastic, but it's not just about where you're from, it's about how you eat and what ingredients you use. Eating the Mediterranean diet isn't just about buying the right groceries or preparing food with shortcuts, it's about lean protein, healthy vegetable and fruit-based accompaniments, portion control, and of course, living well and savoring life. Try these five tips for eating the Mediterranean diet. * Lean Protein: Start out with a delicious lean protein like seafood. Try a fillet of your favorite fish and pair with a delicious side. Salmon, sardines and trout are rich in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, which can limit the risk of heart disease and strokes. Substitute your seafood of the day in this recipe for Pan Seared Pollock with Sauteed Mustard Greens and Bulgur Salad. If you're a vegetarian, try chickpeas for a protein-packed legume alternative.

* Healthy Sides: Do as the Moroccans do and serve a pilaf of couscous, or try your favorite whole grain like brown rice, bulgar, or freekeh. Fold in vegetables like grated carrots, chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, and a handful of fresh herbs for a lot of flavor, and not a lot of calories. Serve lots of fruit and keep it handy for a healthy snack and a way to even make your kitchen beautiful!

* Healthy Fats and Oils: Instead of butter or margarine, cook with olive oil, a staple in the Mediterranean diet. It doesn't have saturated fat, and has been been linked to reduced inflammation, which helps prevent conditions like heart disease, arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

* Portion Control: Another staple of the Mediterranean diet is to use portion control. Small portions of delicious fish paired with vegetables and a whole grain will keep you feeling full longer. If you're craving dessert, go for a bowl of fruit salad or another healthy dessert.

* Enjoy Yourself and Savor the Moment: Get together with friends and family for long Sunday meals, and enjoy the time around the table. When we're present, we enjoy our food more, and relish what's on our plates. Food isn't just about nutrients and calories, it's about celebrating life and the bounty on the table.

What are your go-to Mediterranean-influenced recipes?