Greek food is often considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, as it is associated with the Mediterranean diet, which has been proven to have countless health benefits.
The Mediterranean diet is the best example of a diet that never goes out of style; has withstood the test of time and is still considered one of the healthiest of all.
The Mediterranean Sea is home to considerable cultural diversity as it is bordered by Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa.
Although each country presents its own food choices and traditions, recipes from each culture represent an essential overlap, hence individual cuisines share attributes and nutritious ingredients.
Principles of the Mediterranean diet
As a rule, the Mediterranean diet is mainly plant-based, as it is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes and raw cereals, while it is low in meat and meat products (only a few times a month).
Diet lovers also consume a reduced amount of dairy products.
These ingredients are linked together by olive oil, an essential ingredient when it comes to defining the basics of healthy Greek food and the Mediterranean diet.
Rich in unsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, antioxidants, vitamin C, polyphenols as well as other vitamins and minerals, the Greek diet consists of extremely healthy foods.
Cereals are whole or in the form of bread or pasta cooked al dente, which lowers the glycemic index. Minimally processed foods, which are a key element in the Greek diet, also provide prebiotic fiber, which promotes intestinal health.
According to some studies, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of some chronic diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Some have even linked it to preventing depression.
The main healthy ingredients in Greek food and the Mediterranean diet
As an integral part and expression of local culture, the Mediterranean diet is based mainly on home cooking using local ingredients.
Olive trees, vineyards and wheat have always been part of the Mediterranean region. But the area has also been a point of convergence for many different cultures; this means that typical Mediterranean foods include local ingredients, as well as those imported long ago from other regions.
These are some of the super star foods in this delicious diet that promotes health.
Olive oil and olives are a key element
Olive oil is the common denominator in the various dietary models of the Mediterranean diet throughout the region, with Italy, Spain and Greece being the three best producers in the world.
Extra virgin olive oil is rich in carotenoids and polyphenols, offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Olive oil is the main source of fat in the diet, and is also used for cooking and baking.
Contrary to popular belief, high quality extra virgin olive oil has a high smoke point due to its lower free fatty acid content.
Table olives, especially Kalamata olives, are another rich source of antioxidant polyphenols. Olives are also used for cooking and flavoring dishes, or simply for snacking.
Wheat is the basic grain of the Mediterranean while another traditional grain is farro (or emmer), an ancient wheat with renewed popularity in recent years.
Bread is often baked using unrefined wheat flour and barley. Mediterranean wheat is also used for couscous and pasta.
Traditionally, wheat was ground with millstones, producing a fiber-rich whole wheat flour with a lower glycemic index.
Wild vegetables are one of the healthiest Greek foods
Pleasant pies made with greens are the main dishes in Greece and other areas of the Mediterranean. Fennel, dandelion greens, rocket and chicory are just a few.
Of course, the nutrient composition varies between species; for example, darker vegetables are rich in carotenoids, vitamin C, magnesium, iron and calcium.
Not all vegetables are equal in their flavonoid content, so variety in the diet is ideal. Greens are also a source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
In North America, it is possible to find dandelion and cabbage greens as well as other cultivated greens.
Wine: an ancient ingredient
Alcohol is common in the traditional Mediterranean diet, dating back to ancient times.
However, it is consumed in moderation and usually in the form of wine and, as a rule, during meals.
Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidant and flavonoid polyphenols. Wine helps increase HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
This important ingredient is commonly used as an ornament that offers fragrance and grows wild throughout Greece.
Capers have significant antioxidant properties and are easily found as a healthy spice in salads in Greece.
Even when they are low in calories, capers are fermented in sea salt, this makes them high in sodium, so rinsing them under running water before use is always a good idea if you are trying to watch the salt intake.
Chives are a good source of fiber, folate and manganese while also providing protein, iron and magnesium.
Chives are one of the earliest cultivated legumes, they are the main ingredient in many traditional Greek dishes.
Lemon offers flavor and health benefits to Greek food
Acidic foods lower the glycemic response as they slow down the gastric emptying process.
Lemon juice is high in flavonoid content, with a beneficial effect on blood glucose, helping to control or prevent diabetes.
Oranges and lemons originally come from the East, and they were introduced to the region by the Arabs.
A healthy habit in the Mediterranean is that of squeezing lemons in salads or fish, as well as in drinking water. This lowers the glycemic load of the whole meal.
This essential ingredient of all Mediterranean cuisine is often found in a variety of sauces and dishes.
For example, tzatziki, a staple in Greek food, is yogurt mixed with garlic, cucumber and olive oil, while aioli, an Italian sauce, is made by mixing garlic with eggs and olive oil.
The sulfur compounds in garlic produce both its pungent aroma but are key to its health benefits, which include anticancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Plants contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, especially polyphenols. In Greek cuisine, herbs contribute to the overall intake of flavonols.
Plants vary in each Mediterranean region, but along with spices, they are essential for Mediterranean cuisine.
Many of the classic plants cultivated in North America grow wild in the Mediterranean.
Slices and yogurt
Traditional sliced cheese and yogurt are fermented, which makes them rich in probiotics, also providing an extra portion of protein in a mostly plant-based diet.
Authentic Greek slices are made with goat milk or sheep milk, while yogurt with honey is a common Greek breakfast.
Bring home the Mediterranean with healthy Greek food
The traditional Mediterranean diet is based on local food, but that does not mean that people from other regions can not enjoy its benefits.
Adapting to its basic principles is easy and offers a delicious way to bring healthy foods to the table.
Preparing simple meals from fresh ingredients at home is a fundamental principle of the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle.
In addition, her balanced approach to eating does not neglect the fashion taste of some meats, sweet foods and wine.
Basic rules to remember
- Eat more plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
- Replace butter with healthy Greek olive oil.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor.
- Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month.
- Eat fish and poultry at least twice a week.
- Drink red wine in moderation.
- For best results, also include physical activity and enjoy meals in the company of family and friends.