Fleshed Out

Far from following the frugal Mediterranean diet, Greeks eat a massive 340 percent more meat than the recommended amount. Much to the dismay of nutritionists...

By Connie Phillipson

WHICH obese race will do nothing about their obesity? One in four fat Greeks, that's who. And this, by their own free admission, under no pressure or any other constraints. That fact, together with many others about what Greeks think about their diet and other relevant questions, was made public in March in Athens, by the Aristides Daskalopoulos Institute.

The source was a research project undertaken on its behalf by MRB Hellas SA on the dietary habits of the Greeks. The sample was fairly large as such projects go in this country, 1,300 persons queried, comprising an almost equal number of men and women, and this detailed quantitative telephone inquiry covered perhaps for the first time the whole of Greece. The release makes fascinating reading for a nutritionist, but it is also of general interest for what it shows.

One of the first things to notice is that four in ten admit to being overweight or obese. The causes for this are listed as too much food (particularly fatty foods), a lack of exercise and the absence of willingness to ameliorate their condition - in fact, one in four does not intend to do anything about it. The people questioned thought that the most effective way of dealing with the situation is more exercise (95 percent), adequate information (87 percent), and a reduction of the amount of food ingested (84 percent). But at the same time, fewer than half exercise "almost" every day, 15 percent exercise 3-4 times a week, and so on, figures that seem like wishful thinking more than anything else. On the strength of this observation alone, one must suspect either a great deal of unconscious lying (a wish presented as an accomplished fact), or that the survey is simply not representative.

Remarkable as the admission may be that one in four fat Greeks does not intend to do anything about it, this is not the most notable. What is really striking is that people appear to have never heard of metabolic disorders or hormonal imbalances, which today may be one of the primary reasons for obesity becoming a full-blown epidemic. The reasons are not hard to seek.

The two principal sources of information distinguished are first the media, such as radio and TV, and second a variety of printed materials that have to do with diet or nutrition. But only slightly over one in ten says that the information is obtained from specialised scientists (nutritionists, dieticians or medical practitioners), by all accounts an extremely small percentage. Despite that, six in ten consider their diet from good to very good, while only four in ten admit to a so-so or poor diet. This is particularly revealing in view of what they eat.

A non-Mediterranean diet

The foods consumed show that Greeks are fervent meat eaters, consuming a whopping 340 percent more of the stuff than they need, followed by potatoes (80 percent more), pulses or legumes (43 percent more, but that is a good thing), and milk products (13 percent more). It is striking to see that Greeks eat 69 percent less vegetables and fruits than they need, and 46 percent less bread and other cereals. This is remarkable, because in all published literature the people of this country are way ahead of nearly all other peoples in the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits and certainly of bread. If this is correct, and there is no concrete reason to doubt the reliability of the survey, then one has to really wonder what is happening to the Mediterranean diet. At any event, the Greeks' consumption of fish, fowl and eggs, is also below par by 30-40 percent. Whether the last figures have been affected by the recent risk of bird flu is not recorded.

Asked about what the Mediterranean diet consists of, more than half named olive oil and green vegetables, nearly half identified legumes, around a quarter fruits and fish, but less than one in ten named salads, and a mere 3.6 cereals and bread! Aside from the revealing ignorance about the constituents of the Mediterranean diet, nearly half the Greeks leave their home in the morning without breakfast, or simply after drinking a cup of coffee or a glass of milk.

On the subject of information, more than half the questioned people considered themselves from totally uninformed to nearly so. Forty percent think of themselves as sufficiently informed, and only 9 percent admit to being well informed. It is no surprise to see that women are much better informed than men (58 vs 40 percent), and that the better educated are more informed than the less so. School plays an infinitesimal role in the enlightenment of young people (1.7 percent), and the internet even less so (1 percent). Magazines, newspapers, and state agencies appear almost non-existent as sources of information (0.1 percent), while books which deal with nutrition barely make an appearance (0.2 percent).

Taking all this on its face value, the situation seems appalling. It is not that I did not have an inkling of these facts before, but my knowledge comes from my clients who consult me because many already have, or suspect the future may hold for them, some serious health problems. It was appalling to realise that the situation I face in my office is a reflection of the country at large.

Baked noodles with spinach and yoghurt

Serves 4
250g noodles
3 tsp salt
450g yoghurt
1 cup cottage cheese
500g spinach, fresh or frozen, thawed
4 tbs onions, chopped
1 cup graviera cheese, shredded

Gradually add noodles and salt to rapidly boiling water so that water continues to boil; cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. Drain noodles in colander. Preheat oven to 200C. Combine yoghurt and cottage cheese; combine noodles, spinach and onion with yoghurt/cottage cheese mixture. Pour into a 1-litre baking dish; top with graviera cheese. Cover and bake 20-25 minutes. Uncover and bake until cheese is melted and brown.

Low-fat chocolate souffle

Serves 8
1 cup chocolate or carob chips
450g firm tofu (water-packed)
1/2 cup cocoa or carob powder
3/4 cup honey
3 tbs Grand Marnier liqueur
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup soya milk
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 175C. Place chocolate chips or carob in a bowl and place it in hot water to melt stirring with a spoon. Place remaining ingredients in a food processor and blend till smooth and creamy. Add melted chocolate and puree a few moments. Pour into a very lightly oiled 1-litre souffle dish. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the souffle has completely puffed up. Cool for 5 minutes.

(Posting date 24 April 2006)

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