What the Ancient Greeks can teach you about dieting

The ancient Greeks did everything in their power to separate themselves from hunter-gatherers and become a civilized race. Farming was seen as a way to classify their civilization while transforming nature. Bread, wine, and olive oil were the foundational ingredients cultivated from nature in ancient Greece, representing loyalty and simplicity.

  • Bread: More than any other product, bread represented civilization because humans were in control of the process. Ancient Greeks had 50–70 varieties of bread that were an important part of the diet, also used to celebrate special occasions. Bread is accompanied and served with most meals today.
  • Wine: Greeks drink for pleasure, never to get drunk. In ancient Greece, the wine was given medicinal properties and was important at the symposia, a meal celebrating a special event like a game, political decision, or wedding. Wine is still important to this day — a small glass often drunk at lunch and dinner.
  • Olive oil: Olive oil was a prized item that was used to cook almost every item and was the base of trade in the Mediterranean. It was also given medicinal properties, used as fuel and body lotion. Today, Greeks consume the most olive oil in the world, averaging two cups per person per week.

Greeks cultivate the highest quality foods in their own countryside. The climate is perfect for growing a variety of things from olives to lemon trees. In summer, gardens include arugula, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, and varieties of citrus fruits. Winter beds are robust with lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, green onions, cauliflower, leeks, green peas. Greens and herbs such as oregano, basil, mint, and thyme forage from the wild.

In Ancient Greece, eating meat was seen as barbaric. Meat was associated with a sacrifice to the gods prior to festivities, rather than the main food source. They kept goats and sheep mainly for tending their fields and producing milk, cheese, yogurt, and wool. They were killed when they were old and outlived all other purposes or used as a sacrifice.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is high in fiber, vitamin-rich fruits, and vegetables. It is moderate in proteins, and low in simple sugars, saturated, and trans fat. Similar to other parts of the world, the traditional Greek (or Mediterranean) diet is eroding and processed foods are taking hold. Modern scientists have analyzed the traditional Mediterranean diet and found it protects against heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Lessons from the traditional Mediterranean diet….

  • Lots of plants: choose fresh, local vegetables and fruits as main ingredients. Even better, harvest from your own seasonal garden or forage wild asparagus and onions.
  • Olive oil and simple seasonings: focus on using the highest quality, unadulterated produce first, cook slowly, and season with olive oil, lemon and herbs rather than fussy sauces. Get outside and forage wild grown parsley, samphire, fennel fronds, dandelion and chicory.
  • More oily fish and beans: eat lots of beans and whole grains, fish such as tuna, salmon, bluefish, and sardines in moderation, and less meat and dairy. Grill, bak, broil or steam rather than fry.
  • Fruit: replace real fruit and juice with dessert and sugary beverages.
  • Wine in moderation: enjoy a small glass of wine while sharing a meal with others.

Most meals start with mezedes, or meze, a series of small plates served as appetizers served with ouzo or wine, designed to whet the appetite. Cold dishes typically arrive first, fish always before meat, and all are meant to be shared. Herbs, specifically, are prepared as a tea and used for digestion, reducing stress, and cold symptoms.

Greeks view meals as social occasions. “Companion comes from ‘panis’, the Latin word for bread. Originally, the word was used to describe someone with whom you shared a meal.” For the ancient Greeks, eating together with good company, or conviviality, separated them from the barbarians and symbolized a civilized lifestyle. Plutarch, a Greek historian said, “We do not sit at the table to eat… but to eat together”. Greeks never eat alone or on the go. Instead, they eat slowly, and meals last for hours. They focus on food and deep conversation. They believe the more people around the table, the better.

What we can learn from the Greeks….

  • Eat simple, nutritious foods
  • Wine in moderation
  • Dine with those you love
  • Turn eating into an occasion

About me

I’m Callie, and I’m the Founder & CEO of Nonna Eats, a Boulder (CO) startup dedicated to fostering community through food. I have experience running a variety of culinary teams, as well as web design and branding.

About this publication

This is a series of stories about reclaiming the art of eating and gathering. Through working with the highest quality chefs and producers, we know how to eat well. If you’d like to read more, please follow. Originally posted on nonnaeats.com.

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