Greece: Home of the Healthiest Diet but not of the Healthiest People

We all know the age old adage that “you are what you eat”, and each region of the world has its own twist on cuisine based on what they had around them millennia ago.

The Ikarians, Cretans, and greater Greeks than should all be stellar examples of prime health and longevity—the Mediterranean diet is constantly being hailed as one of the healthiest and finest options out there. People all over the world wish to learn the secret to long-lived vitality—and it seems to be the Mediterranean inspired meal.

Our recipes, and more importantly our ingredients, have been linked to lower levels cancer, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimer’s (to name just a few of the major diseases that plague adults as they age). Why then are the Greeks not quite as vivacious and trim as they should be? They are the creators of the veritable fountain of health (in an easily digestible form!) and yet they don’t even seem to be following their own advice (and their own recipes).

Our neglect of our own roots, and original ingredients, had lead us to be ranked #5 on the list of most obese countries in the world—despite our role as the creators of one of the world’s best diets!

It’s unthinkable; yet true. This is even more astounding when you take into account the fact that the Greeks are also the fathers of modern medicine in many ways. Hippocrates himself (creator of the Hippocratic Oath) is undoubtedly one of our most famous. He contributed to the world of medical ethics, is considered the father of modern medicine and ushered in an era of privacy and respect for the patient. According to Dr. Christos Yapijakis of the University Of Athens Medical School, “The clinical and ethical basis of medical practice, as well as most clinical terms used even today have their origins in Hippocrates.”

Hippocrates isn’t the only ancient Greek to contribute to the field of medicine. We can also lay claim to Asclepiades of Bithynia, who was responsible for establishing Greek medicine in Rome. Of him Dr. Yapijakis states, “He suggested that the human body is composed of molecules and void spaces, and that diseases are caused by alteration of form or position of a patient’s molecules. Asclepiades favored naturalistic therapeutic methods such as a healthy diet, massage and physical exercise”. Even the word ‘diet’ is Greek, and means way of life.

We Greeks seem to have stumbled on one of the better “ways of life” millennia ago, so how have we managed to stumble so far off track? To understand why Greece has fallen into such poor habits, one need only look to our diet and how it has changed over the years. To highlight this evolution let’s review the consumption of nuts. Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado of the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Spain

To highlight this evolution let’s review the consumption of nuts. Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado of the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Spain conducted a study on the “history” of nut consumption if you will. Nuts are one of the components of the Mediterranean diet and a healthy snacking option. It turns out nuts have been a part of the human diet—by means of the Mediterranean region—since prehistoric times.

Yet today, too often they are foregone for the cheaper processed snack option (protein bars included). Because of these snacking shifts there are now approximately 1.4 billion obese people worldwide—that number has doubled in the past 30 years alone and it does not seem to be slowing down. Greece is certainly contributing to that growth—roughly 40%of our children are overweight (this may be the highest rate in the world, excluding certain pacific islands!).

The problem, ironically, is particularly rampant in Crete; home to the one of the most lauded diets out there. So how did this happen? According to dietician Christina Makratzaki, financial times have changed. In the sixties and seventies, Greeks were restricted in what we could eat by our pay checks. Local was cheaper, so we stuck to the traditional diet that we could find in our neighborhoods. As tourism and agricultural exports started to pad the pockets of the average Greek more choices (read processed foods like pizza and hamburgers) became available to us.

Processed foods are a triple threat, cheaper to buy, easier to prepare and hard to resist for children and adults alike. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at NYU, dubs this phenomenon “the nutrition transition”, and it is happening all over the world, causing a deluge of growing waistlines. It’s particularly heavily felt (no pun intended) by the children.

A study run by Dr. Smpokos at the University of Crete looked at the energy consumption differences among Greek children in 1992/93 and 2006/07. It turns out that “A significantly higher proportion of children in 2006/07, compared to 1992/93, had a higher intake of total energy (>120% of the recommended energy allowance).” Even more alarming was the conclusion drawn by the good doctor: “The intake of several macronutrients (protein, TTFA, total and saturated fat) in this sample of children did not meet the recommended intakes in either time period.” Even when these kids were eating 120% of the recommended energy allowance, they still were not getting the nutrients they needed.

Greece is facing economic crisis now, and it is having a direct effect on our waistlines. With junk food here to stay, it’s become much cheaper than fresh foods. At this point, as our wallets get lighter, we’ll continue to get heavier. If we Greeks aren’t careful, and don’t start sticking to our dietary roots, our heart won’t be heavy with only our economic burdens, but with the extra effort to provide for our heavier bodies as well—and that’s a “diet” that no one can feel good about.

Author Stella Metsovas: Originally printed for The Greek Star