In case you did not already know, I am Greek - I am actually 100% Greek and first generation as well since my father was born and raised in southern Greece. In addition to other aspects of my childhood, being Greek strong influenced what we ate and what my mother cooked. This was evidenced by holidays, family gatherings, and the average weekday meal. Lentil soup, stuffed peppers, string beans in tomato sauce, and spanakorizo (spinach and rice) all made very regular appearances on the dinner table. Everything - and I mean everything - was made with copious amounts of extra virgin Greek olive oil (I cannot even remember another kind of oil every being in the house). At times I was certainly the kid at school with the "weird, ethnic" lunch and, although it is quite embarrassing for me to admit now, I would nag my mom for more "regular, American" foods - mostly to no avail. Now, years later, I immensely appreciate the influence the Mediterranean diet had on our eating habits and love to espouse the benefits to others. Here are my top to tips from the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle that you can easily incorporate into your life:
1. Wild Greens – Eat many different varieties, large amounts daily, the darker and wilder the green is, then all the better it is for you. In Ikaria (this is a Greek island that is one of the five Blue Zones in the world - these areas are called this because of their high concentration of centenarians and low incidence of disease) there are over 150 distinct varieties that are highly packed in anti-oxidants. Do you know what the number one missing element in the modern American diet is? You guessed it, dark leafy greens. Greeks use them raw in salads, steamed, sauteed and baked into phyllo. The more pungent or bitter varieties such as dandelion greens are particularly helpful for optimal function of the digestive system, purifying the body of toxins, and are high in vital nutrients.
2. Low Sense of Time Urgency – In Ikaria (ok, in a most of Greece and much of the Mediterranean region too) people don’t wear watches, being late is socially acceptable, no one gets upset and everyone is ok with work getting done when it gets done. While this does not mean the highest productivity and economic growth possible, it does means low stress. While we can learn an important lesson from this, clearly it is a lot harder to implement in NYC given the frenetic nature of our metropolis and our busy lifestyles. What we can do is schedule fewer activities in a day, leave earlier to get to places (so we are not running around frantically and then stressing when the subway is misbehaving), learn to say NO (at least occasionally) and most importantly not make ourselves nuts over what we cannot control (the fine art of letting go, Yoga breathing can help here).
3. Don’t Worry, Be Happy – So, the origins of this saying are not from the Mediterranean but the attitude certainly is aligned with the Greek philosophy on life. Have a positive attitude, focus on the good, do fun things and most importantly enjoy life while you are living it. The irony of worrying is that it never does prevent the bad things from happening and all the while it negatively impacts our well being and mental health in ways we vastly underestimate.
4. Adequate Rest – A daily nap at least 5x per week can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 35%. Wow! In many Mediterranean countries an afternoon siesta had always been a given, and for the lucky it is still in practice today. While most us of us in NYC do not have a lifestyle that will allow for the possibility of midday napping, we can work on harder on prioritizing rest and sleep in general – this means getting enough, high-quality, restful slumber each and every day. It is important to aim for at least 8 hours of shut-eye per night - try getting to bed earlier, employ wind down rituals to calm you before you turn in, and reduce your overall intake of caffeine and other such stimulants that impact the quality of sleep.
5. Move Naturally, Often – Mountain living in a Greek village is a workout. A lot of their normal daily activities are also great exercise such as climbing, walking, animal herding, gardening, and farming. The best part of all is no one thinks twice about doing any of these things. So you are thinking the Greeks at the beach have it easier? You would be wrong there, the work of traditional fisherman is tremendously hard physical work as well. As in many ancient societies, there was a lot of manual labor and there still is in areas that have kept the traditional ways of life. If you mentioned going to the gym they would probably look at you with confusion but not bat an eye at the thought of animal herding, walking daily for miles on dirt roads, swimming for hours in the ocean, and dancing up a storm a few times a week with family and friends. Don’t make exercise another chore that you do halfheartedly, make it a routine part of your every day life that you don’t think twice about – get off a subway stop sooner or get on one later than usual, always take the stairs, if you have a desk job get up often to stretch, go for a midday stroll, and lastly, find a form of “exercise” you actually enjoy and can go to with a smile on a regular basis.
6. Support System – Greece and other Mediterranean cultures have an implicitly strong sense of community and social connections with those around them. Having lots of close family, friends, and loved ones to celebrate and support you in all of life events is a given. This constant system of support has been proven to reduce the incidence of depression, obesity and mortality. A common thread in all of the Blue Zones is the isolation of each of the societies that allows them to preserve their traditional lifestyle and diet in the way that it has worked for thousands of years. We suffer from constant exposure to innumerable different choices at any given moment, the downside of this being stress and the inevitable thought that the grass always looks greener somewhere else. Find the right tribe for you and then stick with them. What does this mean? Eliminate the toxic, draining people from your circle. Surround yourself with family and true friends you can trust, support them and let them support you, have fun together, and, most important of all, keep them around you as long as you can.
7. Eat Local, Eat Seasonal, Eat Natural – There simply was no access to imported foods (until fairly recent years) and our other modern conveniences (like the microwave), and they were all the better for it. They ate what they had, when they could get it from their own or a neighbor’s farm. Food was fresh and full of nutrients because it did not travel thousands of miles away to get to the dinner table. Everything was organic, free-range, grass-fed, and hormone-free because that is the only way they knew how. The traditional Greek Diet is a true farm-to-table, locavore feast.
8. Balanced Diet of Mostly Plants – Traditionally, Greeks consumed a very high amounts of fresh vegetables - they comprise the large majority of food consumed. Beans, olive oil, whole grains, fruit, and moderate amounts of alcohol were consumed daily (mostly local wine, produced naturally). Meat, fish, dairy and sweets (most often made with honey rather than sugar) were consumed occasionally, in moderation. The paradox of Ikarian Diet versus the rest of Greece is that is higher in potatoes and lower in grains and fish. Greece has historically been overwhelming Greek Orthodox, as a religion with deep cultural and community ties, most of the population was religiously devout. Following church requirements for fasting results in being vegan for over 25 weeks per year. While we may not be driven by religion, these elements are all things that can be easily integrate into our lifestyle, with enormous health benefits. If the average American when vegan for a half or even a quarter of the year, the impact on health and the environment would be enormous.
9. Healthy Fats – Healthy fats include olives, nuts, olive oil, small amount of local grass-fed meat (on holidays and special occasions), dairy mostly from goat milk - 80% of all people over 90 have consumed goat’s milk many times per week which is rich in blood pressure lowering tryptophan and has anti-bacterial compounds. Yogurt is one of the mostly commonly consumed forms of dairy in Greece and it is a fermented food, making it easier to digest than other forms of dairy. It contains enzymes that increase production of healthy bacteria in the gut, improving the efficiency of digestion and nutrient absorption. All of the healthy fats were used in moderate amounts to accent the vegetable based diet, they were not the center of a meal.
10. Flavor is Paramount – the one thing Greeks refuse to skimp on is flavor. Not only do they enjoy the superior taste of fresh, local and seasonal foods they accent them with delicious herbs and seasonings, many of which have their own health benefits. Some commonly used flavorings are: oregano (antibacterial and source of anti-oxidants), basil (antiviral and antibacterial), dill (clears indigestion, rich in minerals, calcium and vitamin C), parsley (high in vitamin C, iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium, also aids in digestion), cinnamon (anti-inflammatory, regulates blood sugar, improves circulation, eases stomach pains), and cumin (increases digestibility of food when used in their preparation, has antiseptic qualities, boosts the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body).
Hopefully you can integrate some of these practices into your routine - let me know how it goes and as the Greeks say - Καλη Ορεξη! (Kali Orexi - translates to mean Good Appetite and it is what you say at the start of a meal, like Bon Appétit)