If the Greek diet is so healthy, why are so many Greeks overweight?

Stuffed Greek peppers
The traditional diet of Greece is believed to be one of the world’s healthiest. This dish includes baked stuffed peppers, tomatoes, squash blossoms, grape leaves and zucchini.

Credit: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions

A recent article from the European Food Information Council reminded us of what we already know: Europeans are gaining more weight, and Greeks in particular have some of the highest rates of obesity.

Obviously, this is not something I am unaware of. It is actually one of the reasons I started blogging.

I won’t lie: it’s very upsetting (and embarrassing) for me as dietitian and as a Greek-American to see these figures. Years ago, Greeks would talk about how in America everything is big in order to accommodate the “big” people: big cars, big XXXL clothes, big serving sizes, etc. Yet here we are now with a large percentage of the Greek population being overweight and obese, including children.

Many people may be quick to say, “It’s all that olive oil they pour on their food.” I wish it were all that olive oil; I wish Greeks would use only olive oil. But the fact of the matter is that it’s exactly the opposite: Greeks slowly have stopped eating their traditional foods, which happens to be among the healthiest in the world.

The original Mediterranean diet was based on the diet of Greece, Crete and southern Italy, and now these very areas are the ones with the highest obesity rates.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Some that come to mind:

1. Greeks moved away from the villages, moved to the big cities and started eating processed and packaged foods.

2. Fear of starvation. It might sound like an exaggeration, but because of all the hardship, wars and poverty that Greeks have been through over the years, the fear of starvation still lingers today, especially among older generations. For them, a healthy person was someone with a belly; a healthy child was a chubby child. If you could afford it, meat should be on the table every day. Beans and vegetables were for the poor and less fortunate.

3. Nutritional confusion. While Greeks know that their traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet is healthy, they are getting mixed messages from the media, the food industry and various experts. For years now, we have heard that we should reduce our fat intake, particularly saturated fat. Margarine was promoted as a healthier alternative to butter. But for Greece, these rules were irrelevant and did not apply: Greeks did not consume large amounts of butter or saturated fats because olive oil was their main source of fat. In addition, they had some of the lowest rates of heart disease. Yet today, many Greeks are limiting themselves to two teaspoons of olive oil a day, using margarine in their cooking, eating plenty of meat and following an Atkins-style diet in an effort to lose weight. And it’s not working.

4. Women began working and either do not cook, order out or cook quick meals based on meat and starch.

5. Greeks don’t breastfeed their children. Formula is promoted aggressively on so many levels. Unfortunately, processed foods, special milk, special yogurt and special cookies have been marketed to parents as a healthier and safer choice for their children.

6. And finally, a very important fact: Greeks are less active. More money, more cars and less time have led to less activity. A simple example: As recently as 20 years ago, large supermarkets with parking lots were not common, and shopping was done on a daily basis on foot in the local open market and grocery store, even in big cities. Today, cars are used for nearly every errand.

So my point is that the traditional Greek diet has nothing to do with the rise of obesity in Greece. Sure, Greeks consumed a lot of olive oil, sometimes even reaching 45 percent of total calories. But guess what? The rest of those calories were from fruits, vegetables, beans and fish.

Can Greeks go back to the ’50s? No. Can going back to their nutritional roots help? Yes!

And not only for Greeks, but also for many westernized nations.

Originally posted on Elena Paravantes' blog, Olive Tomato, and used with permission.

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