The traditional Greek diet has been identified as one of the healthiest in the world, but isn't often known as being low fat or fat free. Elaine Gavalas's cookbook, "Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking," not only points to original recipes that are naturally low in fat, but also offers up low fat or fat free alternatives for dishes from appetizers to mouth-watering desserts.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Elaine and learn more about her approach to Greek food.
Q: Tell me a little about your Greek background and how your health-focused professional life brought you to write about Greek foods.
A: Although I’m a third generation Greek American, my family remained close to our Greek roots. My father and grandfather were Greek Orthodox priests, so our lives revolved around the Greek church, Greek traditions, and of course, Greek food! Greek food still remains an important part of Greek American life. Growing up in a Greek household, it seemed as if every weekend was an occasion for a glendi (party). I was constantly attending a celebration for someone’s nameday (their Saint’s feast day), birthday, wedding, bridal shower, or baptism. Then there were our yearly celebrations including the Greek Independence Day parade, the annual glendi of our patriotis (fellow countrymen) from Arcadia and Laconia (the regions of Greece my family is from), the numerous religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and the American holidays too - Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Thanksgiving. With all the relatives, koumbados (godparents), sembetheros (in-laws) and patriotis, we barely had time to digest before the next gathering would come about!
As a sports nutritionist, exercise physiologist and weight management specialist, I’m interested in the beneficial nutritional aspects of the Greek Mediterranean diet. I often recommend healthy Greek dishes to clients with various diet and fitness concerns. My cookbooks, Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking and Yogi in the Kitchen, are derived from that experience.
Q: What you look for in a food regimen?
A: I look to include “superfoods” in the diet, certain foods that are nutritional powerhouses. These foods are rich in nutrients, low in calories and unhealthy fats, high in fiber, which helps you to feel full after a meal, and high in complex carbohydrates, which boost your energy levels. These foods include whole grains, such as whole-wheat pasta, oats, or brown rice; low fat dairy products, such as yogurt and feta cheese; lean meats, including lamb, and skinless chicken and turkey breast; fresh fish and seafoods; beans and legumes, such as lentils and black-eyes peas; olive oil and olives; nuts and seeds; and deeply colored fruits and vegetables. In other words, all of the foods you find in traditional Greek rural cuisine. I call them Greek superfoods.
Q: How important is the rural Greek diet?
A: As I discuss in my book, Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking, traditional Greek rural cuisine is the heart-healthiest food in the world. Landmark studies, including the Seven Countries Study and Lyon Diet Heart Studies, show that the rural people of Crete and Greece have the lowest rates of diet-linked disease and obesity. Rural Greeks also have a longer life expectancy than most other ethnic groups. Traditional Greek rural cuisine has not changed much since the time of the ancient Greeks, millenniums ago. This ancient Greek diet is comprised of generous amounts of fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates, and small amounts of lean meats and dairy products. It’s naturally nutritious and low in “bad” fats (saturated fats, trans fats and hydrogenated fats abundant in animal products and processed foods), and high in “good” fats (omega-3 essential fatty acids and olive oil).
For instance, rural Greeks eat very large quantities of dark green leafy vegetables, herbs, and wild plants such as dandelions, spinach, mustard, fennel and purslane, which have powerful, healing phytochemicals, antioxidants and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Boiled Greens (Horta Vrasta) highlights this traditional Greek dish. Seasonally fresh fruits such as figs, grapes and melons are the most common dessert. Many Greek dishes contain goat or sheep’s milk cheeses such as feta, which are lower in fat and easier to digest than cow’s milk cheeses. Thick, creamy goat-milk yogurt is often enjoyed with a drizzle of honey, Yogurt with Honey (Yiaourti me Meli).
Q: Can Greek cooking be truly fat free?
A: As I discuss in Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking, some “good” dietary fat is essential to healthy body functioning and can even help with weight management. The key is to minimize the intake of “bad” fats and include moderate amounts of “good” fats. Studies show that cutting back on whole fat dairy and meats can help overweight people reach and maintain their ideal weight.
Olive oil has been an essential part of the Greek diet for millennia. The ancient Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift from the gods. The traditional rural Greek diet features olive oil consumed daily as the principal fat, replacing butter and other oils. The Greek diet also includes healthy fats found in nuts and seeds, such as walnuts and sesame seeds.
Important studies have shown that people who use olive oil have a lower risk of heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat and studies show that it raises blood levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol while lowering the artery-clogging LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Numerous studies have shown that people who eat a high-monounsaturated fat diet, such as the traditional Greek diet, have a lower risk of heart disease than people who eat more saturated fats (including butter and margarine).
Q: What are the top 3 changes the average person can make in eating/cooking habits to improve health?
A: 1. Include the Greek superfoods in your diet.
2. Try to reduce, eliminate, or at the very least, minimize, “bad” fats and refined carbohydrates, such as packaged commercial cakes, cookies, and crackers containing hydrogenated oils, from your diet.
3. Practice the ancient Greek golden rule, "In all things, moderation is best." Eat moderate amounts of olive oil and other healthful fats, as part of a diet rich in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, with moderate servings of fish, lean meats, and low fat dairy.