CULTURE

Is the Greek diet going for gold?

Ask any Greek teenager what he or she would like to eat and the answer would most likely be a hamburger or pizza, not a plate of leafy mountain greens or a bowl of steaming bean soup, two dishes considered basic to the Mediterranean diet. While health-conscious food lovers elsewhere in the world have been rediscovering the benefits of vegetables and legumes in recent years, modern young Greeks prefer to sink their teeth into a calorie-laden burger or some French fries. But August’s Olympic Games are giving food enthusiasts the perfect opportunity to encourage signs of a revival of Greeks’ interest in their own cuisine. The basis for the national diet was laid down more than 2,000 years ago when ancient Greeks put great emphasis on a healthy diet and when potatoes, pasta, sugar, coffee and chocolate were unknown foods, said dietician and nutritionist Lena Terkesidou. Figs, greens, goats’ milk, groats and fish would have figured prominently in the diet of a wrestler taking part in the ancient Olympics, she said. Recent research has shown that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish and olive oil but sparing in meat may reduce the risks of cancer and heart disease. For centuries, people living in the region have recognized the nutritional, cosmetic and medicinal benefits of olive oil, a key element of the Mediterranean diet. But a change in lifestyle and rising prosperity had slowly eroded Greeks’ usual eating habits, with many developing a sweet tooth and going for cholesterol-laden junk food, said food journalist and cookbook author Diane Kochilas. «The traditional Greek diet has changed tremendously in the last 20 to 30 years. Among the young, it’s practically dead,» she lamented. «People know what’s good for them but they don’t follow it. They are straying from the Mediterranean diet because of time constraints and opting for convenience,» said Kochilas. Working mothers do not have the time to cook good, nutritious meals every day, while the large variety of frozen foods on offer in supermarkets have removed much of the need for home cooking, she said. The growing number of obese Greek children is a worrying testament to Greeks’ changing eating habits as is the spread of fast-food outlets, Terkesidou said. Modern Greeks frequently consume sweets, fried potatoes and sugary soft drinks, unlike their ancient ancestors, and ignore healthier foods, such as pulses. «Greek children are among the most obese in Europe,» she said. Kochilas said the approach of the August Olympic Games has sparked new interest in the Mediterranean diet. «I think the Olympics has raised awareness of the Mediterranean cuisine both in Greece and abroad, judging from the restaurants that have sprung up recently,» she said. «Greeks are becoming more aware and more proud of the roots of Greek food. Because of the Olympics, Greece is thinking of its image, for example, in food,» she added. Games organizers said they planned to promote Mediterranean cuisine to athletes at the Olympics, although other choices, including kosher and halal food, would be available. «Mediterranean food, I call it Greek food, is healthy and it’s also the international fad now. Research shows it lengthens the average life span and is also good for the heart,» said Makis Fokas, Athens 2004 food services manager.