Are we Practicing What we Preach? Study Shows Young People not Following the Mediterranean Diet.


That is what a recent Spanish study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is showing. According to the researchers, the elderly (over 62) were more likely to follow a Mediterranean style diet. Now it needs to be noted that this study was conducted in Spain, so in other words, a country that has the Mediterranean diet as its traditional diet. Previous studies have also shown that generally the older generations have a higher compliance to the diet. This comes as no surprise as there are several reasons the older generations continue to follow this pattern of eating: habit, tradition and way of of life to name a few. They grew up on this diet.

But this got me thinking: How do you get young people who live in the Mediterranean (such as Greece) to follow this diet? Here in Greece, everybody talks about how great the Mediterranean-Greek-Cretan diet is, Nutritionists, Chefs, TV Cooks all use buzzwords such as “healthy”, “Mediterranean”, “Greek”, but then they give us recipes and dishes that are not healthy or mediterranean or Greek.

Through my counseling practice, but also as a food and nutrition editor for various Greek magazines I can say that many younger generations including college-age individuals but also individuals who already have families do not follow a Mediterranean diet. There is meat on the table almost daily, snacks often include croissants, hamburgers, crepes, crackers rather than cheese pies (tiropites), spinach pies etc. Olive oil is often substituted with other vegetable oils and it is often used in very small amounts for fear of gaining weight. Greeks are infatuated (literally) with yellow low fat cheese, promoted heavily on television, which is astounding considering the abundance and variety of Greek cheeses. Breakfast is often cold cereal masquerading as healthy, breakfast bars, fake croissants (especially for children). Young children are offered food all the time. Cookies such as those of the famous Greek cookie company Papadopoulou are given to kids as a snack at all times of the day, with otherwise well-educated mothers thinking that they are healthy (they are really just a combination of processed flour, sugar and some fat-empty calories). They also give their children meat, eggs and large amounts of milk every day, because they “need” it.

These misconceptions have been carried on from older generations who have what we call the “Occupation” Syndrome, when people in Greece were truly starving. Occupation here referring to the occupation of Greece by Germans and Italians during World War II where over 300,000 Greeks died of starvation. But these younger generations cannot even comprehend what starvation means nor have they ever experienced it, these new parents really have no excuse for following this type of advice. Or maybe they do?

Food Industry at Fault
Advertising plays a huge role in spreading misconceptions, nowadays people are spreading tablespoons of cholesterol lowering margarines on their big slices of pseudo whole wheat bread instead of just eating more vegetables cooked with tomato and olive oil which as we saw from a previous study contains over 40 types of polyphenols. We see people eating sausages with added olive oil in them and they think they are eating “mediterranean”, they eat processed cereal with added fiber because they think this will keep them full and help them lose weight. But it’s not only advertising…

The Mediterranean Diet is not Trendy
Of course there is also a matter of trendiness. The Greek/Mediterranean diet, is not really trendy in Greece, well actually it is, but only when you go to a cool restaurant downtown, not at home. I know many may disagree, sure there are some talented Greek chefs that use all these traditional Greek ingredients and make wonderful dishes and there is this new movement of young producers making great products. But on the other hand we also have many chefs and cooking shows geared to the general public that are far from being Mediterranean or healthy, heck we even have a cooking show called Oreo Cooking with recipes that only use Oreo cookies and ironically is hosted by a famous Greek chef who brands herself as offering “Authentic Mediterranean Cuisine”, not sure how “mediterranean” Oreos are. The majority of cooking shows in Greece offer many recipes using plenty of butter, bacon, heavy cream, ham, and generally rich recipes which often do not have anything to do with the Mediterranean. While the traditional Mediterranean Greek Diet is shown on Greek television, it is done for entertainment purposes mainly.

Unfortunately, many Greeks are under the impression that they are following a Greek diet. Greek to them is grilled meat every day accompanied with fried potatoes, or souvlaki or pastitsio or some other meat based dish. They’ll tell you proudly how they only eat lamb or sausages from their village. Well sure that is Greek, but it is what is called Greek Urban Cuisine which many attribute to the Greek cook Tselementes in the 30’s, who wrote a cookbook with recipes influenced by French cuisine, including a lot of meat and butter, in which even some traditional Greek foods that were normally made with olive oil had butter in them. This type of cuisine is common in many Greek households today, but it is not the traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet, it is a type of cuisine which back then was served in medium to high income homes in urban communities who could afford to eat meat and butter everyday.

Lately, many Greeks are saying jokingly (or not) that we may have to return to eating traditional Mediterranean diet dishes such as bean stew (fasolada) and anchovies because we will not be able to afford anything else, due to the financial crisis. And while nutritionists like me believe that this would be a positive development nutritionally, the actual statement is unfortunate, because it only shows that-even today- how much Greeks look down on their traditional diet: They will only follow it of they cannot afford anything else. It seems to me that there still is this lingering attitude that the traditional greek diet (which was the prototype of the now famous Mediterranean diet) is somehow inferior: not enough meat and too much olive oil, which actually are two characteristics that make it healthy.

Of course no one is saying that you should strictly follow a Greek -Mediterranean diet, I personally enjoy many kinds of cuisines, but at the end of the day it is what you eat most of the time that will make the difference. An we (Greeks) need to practice what we preach, not only for our health but for our reputation.

Photo by Lou for flickr

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  1. The first half of this century was devastating for Greece and after WWII what followed was a brutal civil war.
    Early modern Greek society with it’s loose laws allowed Western European companies to come in and change who we are and yes change our eating habits as well.
    I remember as a kid commercials of imported whiskey and cigarettes and the beautiful blond on a horse adverting shampoo and we ate it all up.
    The “occupation syndrome” that you’re correctly referring to along with advertising has created the xenomania we are witnessing today and what we eat is who we are, a mirror of deeper issues within us.
    Keep up the good work, I’m new here and enjoy your blog immensely.

  2. Γειά σου Ελενα

    Πολύ ωραία η ανάρτησή σου και πολύ σωστά αυτά που λες.Συμφωνώ πως έχουμε χάσει την έννοια της ”Μεσογειακής διατροφής” παραφράζοντας πολλά πράγματα ως ”μεσογειακή” διατροφή ενώ δεν είναι. Χάριν των χορηγών και του εύκολου κέρδους για κάποιους.

    Καλό απόγευμα

    1. Ακριβώς Marion, το κέρδος δυστυχώς επηρεάζει. Ευχαριστώ για το σχόλιο σου.

  3. Greek Food Lover says:

    As a Mediterranean and Greek food lover, I was pleasantly surprised to read this article. Thanks so much for sharing. I mainly eat Mediterranean because I love it, not because it’s a cool/trendy diet. More people should consider it a lifestyle, not a trend or way to loose weight.

  4. My eyes welled up with tears when I read this. I am an American, with no Greek heritage, living in Greece. I am a devoted convert to the mediterranean cuisine, and am so dismayed when I go to local Gk super markets. I see aises devoted to American-style box cereals, and those “fake croissants” you mention in the convenient individual packets. So many Greeks, as you say, associate their traditional cuisine with hardship or with a peasant background (that somehow triggers a sense of shame) or with lenten fasting. As a Greek-American living in Greece, you must be aware that many Greeks consider your views askance. Myself, as an American with no Greek heritage, I feel very hesitant to speak up about the exporting of our horrible American eating habits, if I am not prompted by others for my opinion. I support you in your effort to gain a broader platform for your message in Greece. If there is any way I can help you out, let me know. ¨Εχεις ένα blog στην ελλενικά;

    1. Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for sharing! Yes, I can imagine as a non-Greek you must find this difficult to approach. I know that many Greeks might not like to hear this, but they are aware of it. I believe it is about changing the mentality of the older generations associating many of the traditional Greek foods with poverty and transferring that mentality to the younger generations. At this time I do not have a blog in Greek.

  5. Yes, I agree with this article as I see it often. Most places use “Mediterranean” as a buzz word to sell their product but they
    have not looked into the actual meaning of the word, for “diet”
    purposes. Constantly, my mom nags me, eat this, not that. Of course,
    I always listen & eat healthily as much as possible, even more so when I’m at mom’s. When I go out, I’m always thinking how much fat, sodium or sugar is in the food or sauce I may eat. For me, eating out is a treat I do once, every
    4-6 months and I do not see it as a “normal” way of eating. Even when I can’t afford food, I always think of my health 1st. It makes me sad when I hear about children (or adults) being obese because of their fast food eating habits. I only hope that people will wake up & eat more of what grows from the ground & much less of red meat & fatty dairy. It’s up to the individual to eat healthily & to stay health. keeping in mind that eating out or cooking meals with these ingredients are a treat & not to be done everyday. “)

    1. Thank you Mary X for sharing. Yes, definitely people need to be eating more of “what grows from the ground”