Things I Learned from a Trip to Greece

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The following is an excerpt taken from my preventive medicine manual, Live a Long and Healthy Life, available for purchase at my practice.

On a special vacation years ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Greek Island of Mykonos. It was a wonderful trip – the weather was beautiful, the people we met were extremely hospitable and the food was unbelievable. You can imagine my surprise when I returned home and found that rather than gaining weight as I usually do on vacation, I had actually lost three pounds. How could this be? Perhaps it was not just the food we consumed but other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle as well.

While on our trip, I noticed that people in Europe were generally slimmer than those of us in the United States. We did much more walking in Greece than we do here. In fact, in order to get anywhere, you had to walk, as the roads in Mykonos were simply too narrow to allow passage but for the smallest of vehicles. 

Takeout food was an unheard of concept in Greece. Everyone sat down to eat. Whether it involved a complete meal, a sandwich or simply a cup of espresso, you were expected to sit down and enjoy whatever it was you were consuming. When you sat down, the table was available to you for as long as you liked, even if you were lingering over a cup of coffee for an hour or two. Dining and relaxation went hand and hand.

I recall one of the meals we had after an arduous day of swimming and sunning on one of Mykonos’ famous beaches. For the group of 6 of us, dinner consisted of 2 greek salads, 2 wild spinach salads, 2 orders of grilled octopus, grilled sardines, a steak and a bottle or two of wine. Basically we split 4 main courses, all high in omega 3 fatty acids, and 4 orders of salad, between 6 people.  The servings of vegetables were very generous and since we shared our entrees, the portions we consumed were much smaller.  Dinner took well over 2 hours. 

While on the island of Mykonos, we would generally eat three times a day. There was a Greek bakery only 1/2 mile away from our lodging (how could we resist?) so breakfast usually consisted of a couple of fresh croissants and some fresh fruit. Ironically, the croissants in Greece were about 1/3 of the size of the croissants available at bakeries in the states. Lunch consisted of some fruit, splitting a spanokopita or sandwich and occasionally, some nuts. Dinner would consist of a large salad to start the meal, then a main course, simply prepared and surrounded by substantial amounts of vegetables. 

Quality of food over quantity of food is very important to Europeans. At dinner one night, an acquaintance we had made explained that he would travel an hour without hesitation if he felt the quality of food would be superior. In Europe, livestock is grass-fed (not corn-fed) and no genetically modified foods are allowed. The markets we visited all had fresh vegetables that were pristinely clean with no packaging. While there may have been a small section for snack foods, there was not nearly the shelf space devoted to snack foods and soft drinks that we see in the states. In fact, it was rare to see anyone consuming a snack food or protein bar at all. If snack foods were available, there were in the form of dry roasted nuts, nuts in their shell or dried fruit.

Keeping the above in mind, how can we apply these observations to our daily lives?

1.) Exercise is a way of life, not simply a choice to go to the gym. This means taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It means working in the yard instead of hiring someone to do so. It means not fighting for the closest parking space, and it means finding ways to make exercise a part of our daily lives. 

2.) Stop Snacking. Snacking adds excess and unnecessary calories to our diet. You don’t need to snack to regulate your blood sugar. If you consume healthy foods, you will not experience swings in blood sugar. If you must snack, consider a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts. Do not snack out of a bag. Take small portions, sit down and eat your food slowly. 

3.) Enjoy your meals. Put an end to eating on the run or in the car. No more drive-thru windows. Make the time for relaxing meals. Your health is a priority and eating properly is important for good health.

4.) Eat more vegetables. One way to do this is to make salad a part of every meal. Eat the salad first, before you begin consuming the main meal. This will not only help slow down the dining process, it will also allow for the proper feedback mechanisms to occur which will prevent overeating. In addition to a salad, try to include at least one vegetable with every meal. 

5.) Make your main course smaller. Longevity does not correlate with most of the foods we typically consume as a main course. As such, limit yourself to a small serving with no seconds.

6.) Only eat 3 times a day. Let’s put an end to the myth of the mini-meal for blood sugar regulation. For most people I know, this translates to consuming 5 meals a day instead of 3. 

7.) Don’t eat in front of the television. Sit down and enjoy some conversation. 

8.) Spice up your life. Replace most of the salt you use to season your food with a variety of fresh herbs, which contain antioxidants and anti-cancer agents.

9.) Enjoy life and enjoy your food. Don’t over think eating; simply make good choices in the foods you eat. Make vegetables the mainstay of your diet and you will have lots of food to eat, while consuming fewer calories. 

10.) Make treats, treats. Having an occasional treat is fine. Having a treat after every meal is an unhealthy habit. 

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