This is a common question many people ask me, when they find out who I am and what I do. A recent article from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) 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 not aware 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 sizes, big serving sizes, etc. but 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 food, which happens to be one of 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. Yes it may sound like an exaggeration, but because of all the hardship, wars, poverty, starvation that Greeks have been through over the years, the fear of starvation is still lingering today, especially in 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. Nutrition 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, since olive oil was their main source of fat. In addition, they had some of the lowest rates of heart disease. But yet, today many Greeks are limiting themselves to 2 teaspoons of olive oil a day, using margarine in their cooking, and 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 and 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 here too processed foods, special milk, special yogurt, 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, less time has lead to less activity. A simple example: as recently as 20 years ago, large supermarkets with parking lots were not very common, shopping was done on a daily basis on foot from the local open market and the local grocery store, even in big cities. Today cars are used for every little errand.
So my point is that the traditional Greek diet has nothing to do with the rise of obesity in Greece. Sure they consumed a lot of olive oil sometimes even reaching 45% of total calories, but guess what? The rest of those calories were from fruits, vegetables, beans and fish.
Can Greeks go back to the 50’s? No.
Can going back to their nutritional roots help? Yes!
And not only for Greeks but for many westernized nations.