In Search of the Mediterranean Diet

While traveling in Greece for two months, we never found the real Mediterranean Diet. But we tried!

It’s been a while since the last issue of Vegetarian Organic Life. My husband, Mike, and I spent more than two months living abroad. It was the experience of a lifetime as we traveled all over mainland Greece and the Greek Islands learning about the Mediterranean diet, ancient Greek foods, Greek mythology and Greek history and culture. We did research for a book we’re co-authoring called the Spartan Diet.

Experiencing a place of such rich history and natural beauty was magnificent sometimes to the point of being overwhelming. Traveling through Greece was a ravenous feast for eyes and the mind -- not to mention the palate. Everywhere we turned to, there seemed to be a picture screaming to be taken and amazing historical facts to be comprehended.

I hatched a plan to make a very long "stopover" in London en route to Greece to get acquainted with the Mother of all Whole Foods Markets.

Aside from the amazing produce and bakery sections, the Whole Foods Market in Kensington has everything to offer. On the ground floor, they have a wine and cheese bar offering organic wines and cheeses from all over the world.

On the second floor, they even provide Wi-Fi in a section designated for computer users near the prepared food area. This floor has a bunch of organic eateries, including an oyster bar, a sushi bar, a pizza kitchen, an organic crepe and homemade gelato counter, a noodle grill -- the list goes on and on. I’ve been to many Whole Foods all over California and the United States, but the Kensington Whole Foods Market is definitely the biggest and best, and a true paradise for foodies! We stuffed ourselves, and bought all the amazing healthy food we could carry, and headed back to the airport.

Thanks to the kindness of our cousins living in Athens, we enjoyed a wonderful two-bedroom apartment they had for their guests at their home. The house was located on a mountain overlooking Athens, and had a major boulevard with lots of stores, including a very hip Flo Café coffee chain. We spent many hours working and using Flo Café’s free Wi-Fi, which was extremely convenient and pleasant despite the heavy second-hand cigarette smoke (you can’t get away from smokers in Greece—it’s all part of the culture).

We spent many Saturdays hiking the mountains around Athens, where our cousin was training for the grueling Mount Olympus Marathon (imagine a marathon up a very steep mountain on very rough terrain). I can happily report that he finished it in less than 10 hours, which is an amazing accomplishment.

We began our sightseeing adventures by exploring Athens. Our cousin took us to see the Acropolis, which is beyond description. We visited the Agora (market place), the cave where Socrates was thought by some to have been jailed while awaiting trial and other sites associated with famous classical Athenians.

Our cousin also took us to other ancient sites, including Ramnous, which is closed to the public indefinitely (for excavation, so they say). We decided to see it anyway by jumping a six-foot fence topped with sharp, rusty bars and wires. And our defiance paid off -- the site was breathtaking.

We also visited the Temple of Poseidon (Poseidon is the god of the sea, among other things) just outside Athens. The ruins sit up high on a peninsula surrounded, of course, by the sea. It was surreal.

We spent almost a whole week on the island of Crete, where the food was probably the best we had and where many locals adhere to a traditional Cretan diet. Crete has been inhabited for almost 8,000 years (since the Neolithic age). We had the fortune of having our cousin’s friends, a young and charming married couple, show us around the island as well as their village. They made our experience in Crete extra special in every way. While in Crete, we visited the Western World's original city, Knossos, and a small-but-ancient ruins of Letos. Crete was a mind-blowing experience to immerse ourselves in the cradle of Western Civilization.

Our next major destination was the island of Rhodes. The fantastic medieval town there, also called Rhodes, is surrounded by a majestic wall and enormous mote. We arrived early in the morning while the town was still deserted, giving us the feeling that we had been transported back in time. We found a charming hotel in town, which offered the most reliable Wi-Fi. Lee, the hotel owner at the Spot Hotel, is a New Yorker who has lived in Rhodes for 25 years. Rhodes is a magical place that leaves one breathless. The only bad thing about Rhodes is the hordes of tourists that get off the cruise ships and take over the town every day during the tourist season. It was also difficult finding good food there as most tavernas (casual restaurants) have been taken over by tourism style food. Fortunately, our relentless search for good food paid off. We found the best food in town at a restaurant called Mandala, which means "balance and harmony," run by a hippyish Swiss lady. Her restaurant saved us, we finally were able to eat fresh salads and vegetables and also some really delicious homemade pastas and desserts.

From Rhodes we took a ferry to Kos Island, where we spent a couple of days working long hours on some deadlines and thankfully, Internet access there was excellent. The whole island was very different in an almost eerie kind of way. We still can’t figure out why Kos is such a popular destination. The food was the worst we experienced in Greece, and the landscape is nothing to write home about. But we visited a hot spring that flows right into the ocean on a remote beach. Apparently, every year, a wall of boulders gets built up to form a pool within the beach to make a giant Jacuzzi that smells like rotten eggs. I loved it!

One of our favorite places on Earth now is Patmos. We felt the magic of Patmos the instant we got off the hydrofoil, which was a quick and fun form of transportation. The atmosphere was ultra relaxing, the people very friendly and the food fantastic (casual restaurants, fancy restaurants -- even grocery stores were excellent). We loved the pristine and beautiful beaches all over the place and enjoyed an amazing sea view from our room. Our favorite restaurant there was Jimmy’s Balcony located in the town of Chora, which took us about 45 minutes to hike to. The center of town is the ancient Monastery of Saint John the Divine. We visited the cave where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelations. The island is very small with only 3,000 inhabitants. We spent a couple of full days walking and exploring coves and beaches along the coast. The round trip was about 26 kilometers (criss-crossing and following jagged coastlines), but when we got to the end of the island, it was paradise found. There was a beautiful beach with crystal clear water with a single little restaurant where we got to enjoy a delightful and refreshing luncheon right on the water.

We also visited several other amazing spots after significant island hopping. Our favorite island in all of Greece is Santorini. We fell madly in love with this place. We stayed in the town of Oia (pronounced EE-ah). Even writing about Oia makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. One of the most wonderful experiences we had there, aside from having stayed at one of the most awesome villas with the most incredible view ever, was the 24-kilometer round trip from Oia to Fira. It seemed as if we had been transported into a different time -- or maybe even another planet. Our walk afforded us the most dramatic and breath-taking views of the "caldera," the vast expanse of sea on the inside of this circular ring of islands. The experience as we walked along the precipitous edge of the island and its massive cliffs filled me with an overwhelming sense of serenity and humility.

We had on Oia the most wonderful room high up on the cliff overlooking the caldera, with three balconies at our disposal. The room had a small kitchen, and I made most of our meals right there in the room using local ingredients I went shopping for every day.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

We did a lot of research on food and found the vast difference between modern Greek fare and the original, pre-industrial Greek diet particularly interesting.

Studies show that one of the world's healthiest diets is the so-called Mediterranean diet, known for being rich in olive oil, fresh vegetables and seafood. Most people don’t realize, however, that the modern Greek fare is vastly different from the traditional ancient Greek foods. The modern Greek diet, in many ways, has departed from its traditional ancient Greek roots in the same way that all modern food has.

I was surprised to see that French fries and donuts are extremely popular everywhere in Greece. In fact, main dishes, which usually consist of braised lamb and fried or deep-fried fish are served with French fries -- not vegetables. The only way to get vegetables is to order them as side dishes. And more often than not, the only vegetables available on the menu are mountain greens (wild and cultivated leafy greens) boiled in salted water, drained and served with lemon wedges. Many of the menu items served at most tavernas consist of fried and deep-fried foods including calamari, octopus, fish and vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant.

It is difficult to find authentic ethnic Greek food in Greece. Most tavernas feature the same menu, consisting of a few salads, a good number of appetizers and many dishes of seafood, lamb, pork, beef and chicken. International food restaurants of any kind -- besides McDonald's, KFC, and other fast food chain restaurants -- are almost non-existent.

I was delighted to witness, and participate in, Greece's love and devotion to consumption of olive oil. Eating olive oil in Greece is as common as, say, tortillas in Mexico or butter in France.

The extra virgin olive oil served at otherwise average tavernas we ate at in Greece was far superior in flavor than the olive oil I have tried in the U.S. I’m still looking for an oil that comes at least close to the high quality and rich flavor of the ones I had in Greece.

Greeks love drinking coffee, and lots of it. But they are generally indiscriminate about coffee quality. They mostly drink instant coffee such as Nescafé in a cold beverage called a frappe (instant coffee, white sugar and milk).

Breakfast is not a big meal in Greece. But dinner is huge, and usually eaten at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. This worked for us because we stayed up working until 2:00 AM, usually, to be more in synch with business hours in the U.S.

Vegetarianism In Greece

Vegetarianism is unpopular in Greece. Current attitudes tend to associate meat-eating with joyous celebration, social status and possession of wealth. The only vegetarian restaurant listed in our Greece travel book for Athens -- a city of 5 million -- had shut down by the time we got there.

We arrived during the Greek Orthodox Lent, right before Easter, the most important holiday in Greece. Greek Orthodox Christianity is more than a sect or religion. It's closely associated also with national identity. Greeks forgo eating meat and animal products during that time, with the exception of octopus, which they say has no blood. (Octopi have no red blood like humans or other vertebrates, and instead have blue blood. According to Wikipedia, octopus blood is blue because it contains hemocyanin, a protein that contains copper, and is dissolved in plasma. Human blood, on the other hand, is red due to its iron-rich hemoglobin, which is bound in red-blood cells. )

Theologically, the idea of lent for Orthodox Greeks reverts back to the Edenic diet, which is assumed to have been eaten by Adam and Eve in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. The Edenic diet is a vegan diet (plant-based foods only) that when practiced by those in the faith, it’s believed to make them healthier and purer bringing them closer to God.

Naturally, finding vegetarian options at tavernas was almost never an issue. We particularly enjoyed eating delicious mashed fava beans, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes and baked vegetable dishes such baked eggplant. The Greek pastries soaked in honey were out of this world. Did I say that I also ate a lot of bread? That’s right. Greeks sure know how to make delicious whole-grain breads, like no others I’ve had before.

I’ve never been one to worry about my weight, but two months of relentless gluttony and over-indulgence definitely took its toll on my body. Even when I was walking or hiking an average of 50 miles per week. 12 pounds of weight gain later reminded me what conspicuous consumption of often low-nutrient, high-calorie food can do to the body.

Food Availability

The average grocery store in Greece looks pretty much like the average American grocery store; shelves are filled with more or less the same junk (overly processed packaged foods and liquid candy). The produce sections are filled with imported, bland, industrial produce. I searched many grocery stores for different kinds of beans and grains to no avail. I had better luck with small fruit stands that also sell gourmet and organic foods but not a whole lot of variety.

I only found one health food store (which they call a "biomart"), which happened to be in our neighborhood. Though it was tiny, I was impressed by the variety of items they manage to stock, mostly imported fare from Germany and elsewhere in Europe. They sold all organically produced products, which are labeled as “bio” short for “biodynamic.” They offered a good selection of fruits and vegetables as well as beans and grains, including mung beans, black beans, giant beans, quinoa, millet, and barley, which, of course, I purchased to make some vegan home-cooked healthy meals while in Athens.

It was astonishing to see the high number of bakeries in Athens, and cafes, where selling different kinds of slurpuccinos and pastries is their main purpose. And they’re always teeming with crowds smoking and drinking frappes. There is bakery almost in every block, sometimes two or three in the same block. I’ve never seen anything like it.

One of my favorite things to do was to go to the local laiki (farmer’s market). Like all farmer’s markets, everything is sold based on seasonal availability. Although the laiki was vast, most vendors sold basically the same items, which was no surprise, as farmers are limited to growing fruits and vegetables according to the season. Coming from Santa Barbara, California, where -- thanks to the Mediterranean-like weather, almost year round -- I’m used to indulging in a great variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the different seasons. California farmers in general can grow a wide variety of produce, sometimes throughout the year. It was still a wonderful experience that reminded me of how spoiled I am to live in an agriculturally rich and fertile area that’s blessed with such mild weather. No matter what, it is great cooking with the seasons and it’s definitely gratifying to buy locally grown produce from local farmers any place in the world.

All in all, Greece was far more than we expected, and then some. Living there was a dream come true and more rewarding than we ever hoped. Our trip to Greece was personally and professionally life-transforming.

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The Truth About Soy

Q: Hello, I have a question about soy. I've been reading a lot lately about how soy is not all it's cracked up to be and that it can actually be quite harmful (causing infertility among other things). I'm convinced it's because soy is the most genetically modified crop out there and therefore try to avoid soy that isn't organic like the plague. But, soy is in EVERYTHING these days, so it's hard to avoid. And I eat a lot of it, and coincidentally, have not been able to get pregnant for five years.

Recently I heard about a study that did take into account organic soy vs genetically modified soy and it said there is no difference (most studies out there do not separate the two). I still think it's because of the genetic modification that studies are showing links to hormonal issues, infertility, etc. In any case, it's scary to think that something being touted as a wonder food, that's so good for you, is now turning out to be harmful, yet this side of it isn't making it into the mainstream media.

Can you shed some light on this issue?

Thank you!!

Amy D.

A: Dear Amy: Thank you for the great question about soy.

Based on available research, I remain confident that moderate consumption of organic whole soy foods is perfectly safe and even healthy.

It is astounding how the many types of soy have been arbitrarily lumped together (processed, altered, fragmented and whole). It would be a little like saying that, because eating a tub of theater popcorn is bad for you and because deep-fried corn dogs are bad for you that corn is unhealthy.

Thanks to "experts" who advocate meat-based diets and are partial to dairy consumption -- and also specific groups who have a vested interest in the dairy industry, soy has been demonized. Nothing could be less threatening than an organic soy bean.

Cumulative research has shown that people who eat the most plant-based foods are healthiest and that people that consume animal-based diets suffer more from chronic disease. Meanwhile, there is quite a lot of scientific data demonstrating soy’s benefits to human health, including cancer prevention, lower blood pressure and improved bone density.

What is wrong with soy is that, like so many other foods, it has been adulterated beyond recognition by industrial farming and food production.

Researchers have indiscriminately studied soy without taking into account whether it is whole soy or isolated soy protein or genetically modified soy. Not all soy is created equal, which is why not all soy is good for you.

Food manufacturers tamper with a wide variety of foods, including soy, turning it into something harmful that can cause an array of health related issues. Common maladies include food sensitivities and allergies. Our inclination to make food choices based on convenience and cheapness rather than health is the root of the problem. Processed convenience foods that are highly refined and eaten in high quantities can wreak havoc in our bodies.

Ironically, consumption of dairy and meat is far more damaging to the overall health of the world population as well as the environment and yet, soy is treated as the villain. Mounting studies, show the carcinogenic effects of meat and casein, a protein making up 87% of the protein found in dairy, promote all stages of cancer.

According to the American Heart Association, over 80 million Americans currently battle some form of cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, stroke and heart disease. These diseases are responsible for the death of one out of every three Americans.

One of the most obvious misconceptions in the United States about diet and health is the false ideas about milk, calcium and osteoporosis. The belief is that lack of calcium causes osteoporosis, and that drinking milk is the best way to load up on calcium. Yet even experts can't explain why America has both the highest per-capita consumption of milk AND the highest global rate of osteoporosis. In parts of the world where soy is heavily consumed and milk is not, such as many parts of Asia, osteoporosis is almost non-existent.

When it comes to food choices, quantity and quality are both part of the equation. For example, eating Velveeta or American cheese is more harmful than eating an organic Greek salad with goat feta cheese. But then again, eating kale with garlic, olive oil and quinoa would be way healthier.

Moderation is not part of our food culture. We’re creatures of habit and have a natural tendency to both over-do and re-do our foods habits. Most people eat the same foods day in and day out and remain oblivious to seasonal food availability.

The same thing applies to many vegetarians. Far too often, soy is routinely inserted into the diet in place of animal products. Chicken is replaced by soy. Beef is replaced by soy. Hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages -- all come in frozen processed-soy versions. Cheese, milk, yogurt and other dairy products are replaced by soy-based variants. Most soy products are highly processed and quite unhealthy. And a lack of variety in the diet is unhealthy, too. 

What to do? For starters, understand that soy is optional. You don't need soy in order to get protein in a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are plenty of other great sources of protein, including beans, grains and nuts.

Eating homemade meals from scratch is the most effective way of avoiding the consumption of soy, given its prevalence as an ingredient in many other foods. If you do stick to soy, completely eliminate consumption of processed soy including tofu dogs, soy burgers, soy cheeses, fake soy deli meats and soy sausages. Eat only the least processed foods such as organic tofu, soymilk, tamari sauce, miso, tempeh and edamames.

The bottom line is eating foods as close as possible to their natural state is what’s best for us.

I've written in more detail about soy here and here.

Food Is Life

"Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat."

Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC)

Your Wholesome Life

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When it comes to overall health and happiness, it’s all connected: your food, your relationships, your lifestyle and you career. Let me help you find your solution!


The Wonderful World of Ginger

I love ginger and its tangy spiciness, and think it's one of the most underused, underappreciated foods around.

Ginger is the underground stem or rhizome of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale). It offers many healing properties.

Ginger has been used since ancient times in Asia for medicinal purposes, including relief of nausea, motion sickness, arthritis, indigestion, flu, cold symptoms and PMS. It’s best to consume ginger that's fresh. Mix it in food or beverages to avoid the burning sensation it may cause on an empty stomach. Ginger should be avoided by people with bleeding disorders or before undergoing surgery.

The farmer that I buy my ginger from gave me a great tip for keeping my ginger fresh and extra fragrant. His advice counters conventional wisdom on how to store ginger. He actually told me to not store in the refrigerator but rather keep it out at room temperature. My ginger stays fresh and extremely fragrant for weeks, just sitting in a bowl -- even when part of the ginger has been cut off. The farmer told me that this works best with ginger that has not been sprayed with pesticides.

I like to add ginger to smoothies and meals I used Asian spices in. I will post my favorite ginger citrus smoothie recipe on the Vegetarian Organic Blog soon. I also make my own chai mixture using whole cloves, fennel seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, aniseed and star anise. My husband, however, is the expert in making the actual tea and he always adds lots of fresh grated ginger to it. Yum!

I take mine without any black tea in it, because I prefer to avoid caffeine. Stay tuned and I will also share my chai recipe soon.

Stay motivated - Read health-related research news, events and commentary every day. Check out Amira's Vegetarian Organic Blog.

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Attica Lentil Soup

Click on the picture for a closer look!

On my first visit the local laiki (Farmer’s Market) in Athens, Greece, I was inspired to make a soup using only the items available at the stands. I made this soup to share with our cousins in Greece in gratitude for their hospitality and generosity for sharing their home with us.

Get ingredients ready: (use organic ingredients when possible)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup red onions, finely chopped
½ cup leeks, finely chopped (white part only)
¾ cup celery, finely chopped
½ cup carrots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, loosely filled (large stems removed)
1 teaspoon dry oregano (or 1 ½ fresh oregano)
¼ cup fresh dill
8 cups of water or vegetable broth
1½ cups brown lentil beans
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Sea salt (about 2 or 3 teaspoons)
4 cups fresh spinach, roughly chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh lemon juice

1. In a large pot heat oil over low heat. Add red onions and leeks sautéing for 5 minutes occasionally stirring. Stir in celery, carrots and garlic and mix well continuing to sauté for 15 minutes over low heat.

2. Meanwhile, in a blender, combine tomatoes, ½ cup cilantro, oregano and dill blending until completely smooth. Add tomato mixture, water or broth and lentils bringing to a soft boil over medium heat. Add cumin, paprika and black pepper. Reduce heat and cover with lid continuing to lightly simmer for 30 minutes over low heat. Add salt and mix well continuing to simmer for another 10 minutes without lid. Remove from heat.

4. To serve, place 1 cup of raw spinach in each serving bowl. Pour soup in each bowl to cover the spinach (this is what I call rawking the spinach). Top each bowl of soup with 1 tablespoon of cilantro and 1 or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Enjoy!

Cook’s tidbit: Add some steamed quinoa, millet or brown rice for protein rich meal.


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This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.

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