10 Greek Food Ingredients to Add to Your Diet Now

November 13, 2014

greek food

The Mediterranean diet is back in the spotlight! This week we had new research published that once again confirms what hundreds of previous studies have shown: that the Mediterranean diet is good for you. In one study researchers have found that a Mediterranean style diet can protect kidney function, while a second study showed that it provides better blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

If you are not sure where to start, I have singled out 10 foods typically used in the Mediterranean-Greek diet that you should add to your diet now, along with some traditional and not so traditional ways of using them. These ingredients are all great sources of beneficial nutrients and will put you well on your way to adapting your current diet to a Mediterranean one.

1. Dry Oregano
My mom’s favorite herb! It is used generously in the Greek kitchen: in salads, sauces, and meat. Not only does it give a distinctive flavor to a dish, it has many beneficial properties. It appears to antibacterial properties, but most importantly dry oregano is one of the richest sources of antioxidants among herbs.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Sprinkle on salads, meat, potatoes (my mom even sprinkles it on pizza).
  • Alternatively: Make stewed carrots with oregano. Chop 5-6 carrots in slices and place them in a small pot. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon water and 1 tablespoon dry oregano. Simmer until carrots are tender.

2. Walnuts
Walnuts are an excellent source of a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plant sources known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Research has shown that eating walnuts after a high-saturated fat meal reduces the damage caused by these fats in the blood vessels.

Add them to your diet

  • Traditionally: In cakes, in yogurt or plain.
  • Alternatively: Make a walnut pesto. Mix in a food processor 1 ¾ cup walnuts, 2 cups of parsley, 1 cup grated parmesan cheese, 2 cloves garlic, ¾ cup olive oil, ¼ cup water, salt and pepper. Blend until almost smooth.

3. Greek Yogurt
This strained yogurt is famous worldwide for its taste, texture and beneficial properties. Traditionally, the Greeks did not drink much milk but got their dairy through yogurt and cheese. It is an excellent source of protein and calcium, containing the good bacteria that strengthens the immune system and assisting digestion.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Add some honey to plain Greek yogurt (make sure it contains no gelatin, thickeners or added sugar).
  • Alternatively: Make frozen yogurt pops. Mix 1 ½ cup low-fat Greek yogurt with lemon zest and juice of one lemon, 1 tablespoon honey and 1/3 cup sparkling water. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and leave in the freezer until frozen.

4. Garlic
This wonderful herb was once snubbed by many non-Mediterraneans, but today you can hardly find a restaurant that does not to use garlic. For Greeks it is considered one of the most powerful weapons of the Greek diet: protects the heart, has anticancer properties.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Cook tomato sauce with garlic, add garlic to meats when roasting or stewing, make skordalia-Greek garlic dip: recipe.
  • Alternatively: Mushrooms with garlic. In a skillet heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, ½ pound mushrooms and 1 clove minced garlic, until the mushrooms soften and absorb the fluids, about 8-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

5. Small Fish
Okay you know that fish is good, but some fish are better. Generally small “cheap” fish such as sardines and anchovies dominated the Greek diet. They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which may protect the heart, keep away diabetes, arthritis and even depression. In addition, a portion of 3 ounces covers 50% of our calcium needs and 20% of our vitamin D requirements.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Marinated, Cured, fried or roasted with tomato – recipe
  • Alternatively:Make an easy sardine spread- recipe

6. Olives
Olives are mostly known for producing olive oil than an actual food. But in fact they have always been part of meals and snacks in Greece. They are rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, antioxidants properties and fiber.

Add them to your diet

  • Traditionally: plain with some bread, in salads
  • Alternatively: Roasted Olives – recipe

7. Olive Oil
If you are not already consuming olive oil regularly, you are missing out. It is the basis of the Mediterranean diet. Greeks are the highest consumers of olive oil per person in the world because everything is cooked in olive oil even cakes and desserts. There are numerous studies that have shown that olive oil has a multitude of benefits such as protecting the heart, blood pressure control, lowers cholesterol, cancer prevention and cognitive function. It is important to note that these benefits mainly come from specific antioxidants that olive oil contains (olives by the way are considered a fruit), so it is important to realize that other seed oils such as canola and corn oil do not contain these antioxidants.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Cook vegetables in olive oil, add olive oil to salads.
  • Alternatively: Try some desserts such as chocolate mouse or cupcakes using olive oil- recipes

8. Beans
Beans are a traditional food in the Mediterranean diet. In Greece they are consumed either as a soup, roasted or sometimes as a patty. Beans are an excellent source of plant protein and a good substitute for meat. You will also get iron, B vitamins, zinc, potassium, antioxidants and of course fiber. The beneficial properties have been proven many times: protection against cardiovascular disease, balance blood sugar levels, cancer prevention and satiety which assists weight loss efforts.

Add them to your diet

  • Traditionally: Soup or roasted in tomato sauce – recipe
  • Alternatively: As a salad –recipe

9. Lemon
Another antioxidant rich ingredient used in Greek cuisine. Lemon is rich in flavonoids, substances with antioxidant activity that neutralize free radicals.

Add it to your diet

  • Traditionally: Well, Greeks add lemon almost everywhere: Squeeze lemon on meats, add to soups and dips.
  • Alternatively: Make lemon pasta. Pasta with lemon. In a bowl mix the zest and juice of one lemon and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Boil 7 ounces (200 grams) pasta and drain. Mix the pasta, the sauce, a handful of arugula and 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese.

10. Dried Figs
A key element of the Greek diet since ancient times, figs are a nutritional treasure. They are an excellent source of fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants plus they satisfy our sweet tooth without the fat.

Add them to your diet

  • Traditionally:Plain
  • Alternatively: Roasted Figs. Place 1 ½ cup dry figs in a bowl, mix with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 ½ – 2 tablespoons honey. Place on greased pan, sprinkle with salt and bake in the oven at 400 F (200 C) for about 15 minutes. Serve as an appetizer with a variety of cheeses.
Photo by Elena Paravantes

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32 Comments

  • Reply Willy November 13, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Roasted figs? Now that’s something new. We went to Greece last year and I thought I’ve seen them all. I lost 23 lbs this year with the loaded gun diet eating some really diversified food, but never heard of roasted figs.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 13, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      Willy,
      Yes roasted figs is a suggestion that I made as a”not so traditional way” of eating them as I explain in the post, so yes most likely you would not have seen them served that way.

  • Reply Bill Ligris November 13, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Elena, great article, I am here with my dad at the horio and we were talking earlier today about the greek diet as he likes to call it and your article is 100% spot on. Keep up the great work. Greetings from Kallithea.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      Thanks Bill! Enjoy the horio!

  • Reply r.a. November 13, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Is there something extra special about dry oregano versus fresh? I have an herb garden and the oregano grows so well I always use it instead of the dried version as it is at hand. Thanks!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 14, 2014 at 7:09 am

      Dry oregano is generally more concentrated in flavor and easy to store year round. But if you have fresh growing in your garden, that’s great!

      • Reply donald wilson November 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm

        And I might add, if you are lucky enough to get ahold of some wild oregano from high up on the mountains of Greece, preferably, Crete, you’ll have the best that there is. The same goes for Thyme.

        • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm

          Very true Donald!

  • Reply Cheryl November 14, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I try SO hard Elena, but I just can’t eat little sardines! I’ve tried fresh and canned but I just can’t get past the smell. Anchovies I can eat a little (added to sauces or in a salad)and I love most other seafood. Is there another good substitute fish that isn’t so fishy? Everything else on your top 10 gets eaten regularly in this household – so it’s a top 9 for me! 🙂 Great article as always. x

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Hi Cheryl! No worries. What you really are seeking is the omega-3 from the fish. You can try other fatty fish such as mackerel or salmon, not mediterranean and not small but they will still do the job. In salads and sauces is fine too! By the way, have you ever tried grilled sardines served with an olive oil-lemon-oregano dressing? If you are in Greece and Portugal also serves it, try it!

      • Reply Cheryl November 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

        I live near Fremantle in Western Australia – the sardine capital of Australia, but still can’t get past the smell and the bones! Love my salmon though and eat it regularly. Overall I guess I don’t do too bad, but I’ll keep trying! x

        • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 18, 2014 at 5:37 am

          I see. Well, salmon is also an omega-3 rich fish too!

      • Reply denise May 12, 2015 at 3:44 pm

        Hey!!! And us in Andalusia! The weather is just gearing up now for sunday afternoon at the beach chiringuitos where the sardines are cooked on sticks over wood fires in an upturned boat, with flakes of salt olive oil and loads of lemon wedges. Nice cold glass of rioja and yep. The best diet in the world!! Thanks. I love greek yoghurt too, but its quite hard to find here, other than sweetened. The Spanish Cabra yoghurt is pretty close tho.

        • Reply Elena Paravantes RD May 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

          Sounds good! You can also make your own strained yogurt (Greek yogurt)

    • Reply Twila November 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

      I do not like sardines either. No way. But I do love smelts. Every once in a while I see them at the grocery store. Great article Elena. Thx

      • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 15, 2014 at 8:51 am

        Thanks Twila!

  • Reply Mary-Rose November 14, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Elena,
    fantastic pieces of advice…!
    Thank you and please do keep up the good work!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Thank you Mary-Rose!

  • Reply Sue November 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Hi Elena! Being Jewish (but Greek in another life), I love all 10 items and eat them often. A question about the roasted fig recipe (I cannot wait to try this!): how much honey? The measurement is missing..
    Thanks and have a great Mediterrean weekend!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 14, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      Hi Sue! Yes, it is 1 1/2 -2 tablespoons of honey, correcting it now! Thanks for noticing!

    • Reply lagatta à montréal November 17, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      Sue, if you are Ashkenazi from Northeastern Europe, surely you’ve noticed to what extent Sephardic cuisine has caught on among your community, due to the availability of olive oil and other “Biblical” foodstuffs, as well as changing tastes and health concerns.

      Elena, your mushroom and “lots of garlic” recipe is a traditional tapa in Spain, mushrooms al ajillo (with lots of garlic).

      Personally, I love sardines. I prefer the ones packed in olive oil – they are great topping a salad or rice cooked with vegetables. A Moroccan friend dumps them, olive oil and all, into a little dish and adds mild red onion, and eats them with homemade wholegrain bread (a flattish bread, but thicker than a pita)

  • Reply sumit November 15, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Hi,
    That’s an great article & loaded with super info…thanks
    Just help me on
    Reg olive oil- I heard olive oil should not be used in cooking…more or less it should not heated …I mean if you say in cooking u mean to heat it in pan & put onion, tomatoes etc etc..

    Reg dried fig- 1 1/2 cup figs- Do you mean figs cut in small pieces or whole..
    Thanks

  • Reply Cynthia El-Alia November 15, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you Elena
    Really awesome

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 18, 2014 at 5:41 am

      Thanks Cynthia!

  • Reply Paul Levey November 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Great article Elena, thank you so much

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 18, 2014 at 5:41 am

      Thanks Paul!

  • Reply Shelah April 25, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Hi Elena!

    I LOVE your website!!!

    I am wondering if walnuts are typically eaten raw or toasted,for example when added to yogurt and honey.

    Thanks for all the excellent – and fun – information! <3

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD April 26, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Thank you Shelah! Walnuts are consumed raw normally.

      • Reply Shelah April 26, 2015 at 12:16 pm

        Thanks!

  • Reply denise May 12, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks Elena, and there is quite a lot that we use here in Spain that is very similar { although we do dunk bread in little bowls of oil, and drizzle it on our toast} I m going to try the fig receipe as part of a series of tapas when I have friends round after work next, with some cold beers and watching the sun drop down behind the Atlas. { lived here twenty years and still takes my breath away}

  • Reply Alita March 3, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Elena! I’d love if you could do a piece on horta – wild plants. I think they’re pretty integral to the Greek (and Italian) diet and extremely healthy. I’m looking for more ways to serve them (instead of just an accompaniment to meat etc). Thanks!

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