Earlier this month I was invited to speak at Yale University about the health and nutritional status of Greeks and how the financial crisis has influenced the eating habits of Greeks. The session took place at School of Public Health and  was co-sponsored by YSPH (Yale School of Public Health) and the Hellenic Studies Program at Yale and funded by the Kempf Memorial Fund at the McMillan Center and The Stavros Niarhos Foundation Center. I am providing an overview of what I discussed about the Greek diet.

Working as a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for 20 years now the focus of all my jobs has been centered around helping people follow a Mediterranean style diet to improve their health, weight and well-being. With this site -Olive Tomato- my goal is to provide credible information about the real Mediterranean diet globally through my expertise but also lifelong experience.

But what about Greeks? Surely they must be following a Mediterranean diet? Well, not that much.

Having been raised on this diet and experienced it first –hand in Greece and the U.S., I was surprised to see Greeks abandoning their traditional Mediterranean diet in favor of a westernized diet dependent on highly processed foods. The Greek diet has been gradually abandoned since the 1960’s when people moved to big cities, people made more money, westernization of the diet etc. According to World Health Organization (WHO) most Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy are also abandoning their traditional diets eating more saturated fat, more processed foods and more meat. Greece had a 270% in meat intake since the 1960’s.

Adding to that is the aggressive marketing and advertising from the food industry, close collaborations of food companies with questionable products (soda, processed meats) with medical and nutrition associations that has resulted in a generation of individuals who truly believe that processed food is better, safer and healthier.

These changes are not without consequences; according to a recent survey from the Hellenic Health Foundation in conjunction with the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention it is estimated that 74% of Greeks are either overweight or obese. And these numbers reflect the population post-crisis.

The Financial Crisis and the Diet

When the crisis set in, the Greeks were in a state of abundance, their diet and health had not changed overnight, nor was it due to the financial crisis, it came about gradually over decades. The crisis brought about other challenges.

While the media around the globe decided to cover more “catchy” topics such as children starving or how supposedly Greeks returned to their traditional diet due to financial difficulties, the truth is that the majority of Greeks are not starving nor did they return to their traditional humble and healthy diet, quite the opposite. Research has shown us that when individuals face financial difficulties they will choose low nutrient starchy foods and less fresh food. In fact only 25% of Greeks are consuming the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables.

Buying habits changed, Greeks are choosing food based on price and sales. However, the problem is that cheap food is often unhealthy food: processed meats, starchy foods with little nutritional value are often in the shopping carts of Greeks. New statistics from the Research Institute of Retail Consumer Goods is showing that Greeks are turning to fast food. It is estimated that they spend 125 euros a month on fast foods to supplement their main meals in the form of coffees, savory pies, sweets etc. That is a lot of money, if you consider that many households have a monthly income of 700 euros.

Questionable Food On Offer

The crisis has also caused a favorable environment for the food industry to promote and sell food of questionable nutrition. As Greeks are trying to save money, food companies and fast food places are developing products with unhealthy and cheap ingredients marketed to appeal to the consumer. In Greece, the use of the term “traditional” is often used as a marketing tool. Traditional foods made with olive oil, fresh ingredients, local cheeses are now adulterated and mass produced products using palm oil or other vegetable oils, generic cheeses and numerous additives and labeled as a traditional. This is problematic not only for the authenticity and reputation of a product, but also nutritionally. For example, Greek cheese pie made with phyllo (dough) that contains olive oil and filled with real feta cheese which is made with sheep’s milk is quite different nutritionally from a pastry-like concoction that is made with palm oil, refined flour and a generic cow’s milk cheese. Sadly, most eateries and bakeries in Greece use sunflower oil or other seed oils, because its cheaper.

Finally, one issue I have found to be problematic is the questionable food donated to those in need. While it is admirable to provide food items free of charge, surely food companies can offer something more nutritious to food insecure children than cookies, croissants and nutella? Is this charity coupled with indirect marketing? Can we get more nutritious donations? I think we can with proper guidance.

A Way Out

But there is a way out, Greece has three important advantages when it comes to nutrition:

1. A traditional diet that is the gold standard of diets. The traditional Greek diet is considered the purest form and the prototype of the Mediterranean diet. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, we have excellent published nutrition guidelines based on the diets of our parents and grandparents. We just need to make the diet relevant and accessible again.

2. Access to fresh food. Greece does not have food deserts. Every neighborhood/suburb poor or affluent, has a farmers market at least twice a week. This is key in raising awareness on how a traditional Greek diet is healthy and affordable.

3. Greek Filotimo and Filoxenia. Even in difficult times Greeks are helping those in need even though they are having their own financial difficulties. In Greek culture offering to another is considered an obligation, it is a reflection of who you are. According to a recent survey from the Dianeosis, an estimated 58% of Greeks have provided assistance to those in need through the form of food, clothing, money or volunteer work. That is quite high considering that Greeks are going through their own crisis.

Final Thoughts

The state can no longer provide short-term solutions and focus only on quantity of food and not quality in times of crisis. The long-term effect of a poor diet has serious repercussions, particularly in children . There needs to be targeted education of all socioeconomic groups that focus on home economics, misconceptions (processed foods are not better, we do not need to eat meat everyday etc.), smart shopping (junk food on sale is not a good deal).

We also need to rebrand and protect the Greek Diet. Promotion of traditional Greek diet and its significance is a necessity. Not just as a concept, but as an actual lifestyle to be applied. We need to make it relevant, trendy and inspire excitement in all age groups. In the end this will not only be beneficial to the health of the population but for the economy and cultural identity.

Charalampos Economou (Associate Professor Panteion University), Debbie Humphries (Clinical Instructor Yale School of Public Health), Elena Paravantes and Tassos Kyriakides (Research Scientist Biostatistics Yale School of Public Health)

Top Photo by Elen K for flickr

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  1. Elena:

    First of all, thank you for your website and for the emails that we receive from you telling us of various recipes that we should try. Growing up with a Greek father and a Serbo-Croatian mother, I had the best of both worlds. Both were very good cooks and taught me the joy of cooking. So now I am able to prepare a meal for my family that they can enjoy. Living only on block from my paternal grandparents, growing up, also provided me with a steady diet of excellent Greek foods. I do miss my yia-yia’s bread. Often I will make a pot of “soupa” and at least once or twice a year I will make a pot of fela. (If your from Kalymnos, it’s fela not dolmathes).

    I’m saddened to hear that Greeks are moving away from their traditional diet. It’s not only important to keep our traditions but when they lead to a healthy lifestyle, it becomes critical to stay the course. I’m now 74 and have been slowly but carefully losing weight through eating more vegetables and less meat. I still make and enjoy pastitso, but only once or twice a year since it is a heavy starch dish.

    Please keep up the good work and keep heralding the benefits of the Greek diet. You will make a difference.

  2. It really is a trickle down effect, unfortunately. When financial times are tough it results in eating cheaper, less nutritious food. Time constraints can also be a factor, since it takes more time to prepare a healthy meal than to stop by the local drive through window.

  3. Elena,

    Exactly how much dairy is consumed in the traditional Greek diet? Increasingly, I am hearing about the dangers or risks of consuming dairy, but I always think back to the traditional Greek (or even Ikarian) diet that includes dairy without causing many health problems. So how much dairy would traditional Greeks eat? Is it more that we in the West are eating too much dairy and that too much of it is cow-derived, compared to sheep- or goat-derived?

    1. Hi Mary, Well it first needs to be noted that in the traditional Greek diet there was no dairy for about 200 days a year because of the religious fasting (no animal products). The rest of the days, dairy was mainly consumed in the form of sheep’s milk yogurt and cheese. On average about 2 servings a day.

      1. Thanks, Elena.

        I’m beginning to believe that a large part of the health benefits of the traditional Greek diet, oddly enough, stems from what people *didn’t* eat for a large part of the year. Going 200 days a year without dairy is significant especially when we are told that we need dairy for calcium to prevent osteoporosis. Going that many days without eating meat or any animal product is significant. I don’t think that aspect of the traditional Mediterranean diet gets enough attention here in the US whenever this diet is hailed as the “perfect diet” of us to follow. Do you agree?

  4. Just found your site…I love your authentic perspective on and experience with the Mediterranean diet! Especially because I’m a half-Greek American and an RD, too…though sadly, my dad was the Greek one and wasn’t the cook of the family, but my mom did learn to make certain favorite dishes. Look forward to reading more here!

  5. This makes me sad. I notice that when finances are tough, there is definitely a move to eating less healthy, processed foods, and the traditional Hellenic diet is one of the most amazingly delicious and healthy diets (for me… I could honestly exclusively eat Greek salads and chicken and cheeses and veggies cooked Greek-style for the rest of my life and be happy). It is disheartening that companies are seeing a hardship and running in to “solve” it with junk.

  6. The idea of ‘rebranding’ the Greek Diet is interesting. People now hear about the Mediterranean Diet, but of course the original research was about a traditional Greek Diet. And Mediterranean is rather meaningless, since there are so many possible iterations, depending on what Mediterranean country you’re in. I also like the rebranding idea because it might eventually give Greek people a stake in following and promoting something that can be a source of national pride. I’m part Greek, and it would make me proud, even though I don’t live in Greece.

  7. Very important. I’ve certainly observed the same thing in Central and Southern Italy – many parts of the North, (except Liguria) didn’t have a truly Mediterranean diet even before postwar prosperity and agribusiness as they always ate a bit more red meat and butter. I remember an old lady at Centro Dante elder care centre, from Puglia (right across from Greece, and with a similar diet and white buildings) lecturing everyone “eat fish and vegetables, not meat!) It is sad that many people think of the Greek diet as souvlakia and the southern Italian as pizza with a lot of poor-quality sausage and dripping in cheese. Levantine cuisine has fared as poorly…

  8. Just want to express appecation for this article and a prevous one on fallacies about greek cooking. These are what makes this site so good.