Olive Oil, Lemons, and Sunshine–The Greek Diet

On a typical Wednesday morning, the Voula, Athens farmers market—agora—is alive and hopping. Shiny black olives, brilliant yellow lemons, red tomatoes, green beans, and multi-colored bell peppers are patiently waiting in their baskets for buyers to take them home. The weather is warm and the food is deliciously fresh. But you don’t have to travel to Greece to enjoy the goodness of the Mediterranean diet—you can make it happen in your own back yard!

Olive oil and fresh colorful veggies

The Mediterranean diet

Blessed with a sunny and warm climate, Greece is a health nut’s paradise, providing the best that the Mediterranean has to offer. Rich in fruits (citrus), vegetables, olive oil, fish, and whole grains, the Mediterranean diet has been proven to have numerous benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. In addition, research showed that following a Mediterranean diet will aid the immune system and provide anti-inflammatory power. The Mediterranean diet is not a low fat one but it is packed with healthy options.

Olive oil is the star of this diet – and rightfully so. This healthy mono-saturated fat is not only delicious but also versatile. It is used in cooking anything from savory to sweet meals, as well as in skin care, and it will fight the body’s aging process inside and out! It’s no wonder that Mediterranean people are among the longest-living and healthiest in the world.

Although the largest producer of olive oil is Spain, and Italy consumes more than it produces, Greece is the largest consumer of olive oil in the world. Northern Greece averages 25 liters (5 gallons) per year per person, while in the South this goes up to 50 liters (10 gallons)! The olive oil produced in Spain and Italy comes from different types of olives and it will vary in taste, from mild to very strong, specific to each olive used. True Greek oil on the other hand comes from one type of olive called Koroneiki.  This tiny olive packs a real punch with extremely high levels of antioxidants.  It also has a longer shelf life than other varietals.

Olive oil

“Greek olive oil really has its own story,” says Terri Karlsson, owner of The Tree and Vine stores. Terri and her husband Paul started their olive oil and balsamic vinegar business in Asheville, NC and then opened shop in Knoxville in 2012. They travel often to Greece and visit local growers and producers, to make sure they only bring home the best. Their efforts paid off this year when the Laconiko oil which they have been featuring in their stores was named the World’s Best Olive Oil and won Gold at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. Laconiko oil comes from the Laconia region in the southern Peloponnese islands, near Sparta. The climate there provides a unique and rich flavor that is surpassed by none.

Terri is a firm believer in the Mediterranean diet, especially in using pure Greek olive oil. “I have done a lot of research on the health benefits of olive oil and I even speak to doctors about it. I have a passion: I love to help people make their lives healthier and there is no better thing than the Greek olive oil. The medical community has embraced it for years – in the Middle East and the Mediterranean for thousands of years – and it is the only diet that stood the test of time.”

Olive oil contains a substance called oleoanthal. This recently discovered phenolic compound (antioxidant) is responsible not only for a tingling or peppery sensation in the back of the throat when we eat olive oil but, more importantly, for breaking down cancerous cells without harming healthy cells. To get the most health benefits you must use the highest quality of olive oil, which contains the most oleocanthal. This compound inhibits inflammation inside the body, which is the root of many illnesses, especially those associated with aging. Studies have shown that the regular consumption of high quality extra virgin olive oil will nourish the skeletal system, reducing inflammation in the joints, so you can skip the artificial drugs such as NSAIDs (aspirin, naproxen). In addition, olive oil helps the body break down calcium, making it easier for the bones to absorb it, and thus fighting osteoporosis. This green gold is also helpful at reducing blood pressure and removing harmful proteins in the brain that can lead to dementia. It fights diabetes by improving carbohydrate metabolism in patients with Type-2 diabetes, decreasing bad cholesterol, and improving the LDL/HDL ratio. It also reduces plasma triglycerides – high triglycerides being a precursor to diabetes. 

As if all that wasn’t convincing enough, here is more good news: you don’t have to give up fried foods when on the Mediterranean diet. That’s right! Frying in olive oil is actually not bad for you. You can even bake with olive oil instead of butter. Just use 25% less olive oil than the quantity of butter asked by the recipe. “I am a simple cook and I don’t have a lot of time,” confessed Terri, who besides owning the two stores, also runs a B&B in Asheville, and organizes culinary tours through Europe. “I like to bake and I like to use fruit-infused olive oil. The cakes come out moister than when using butter and the fruity aroma is a nice touch! Even the Laconiko oil we import has a bit of a citrus taste to it and it makes for an extra delightful summer salad. The family who grows the olives planted citrus trees in the grove and the olive oil borrowed the flavor. Greek food is all about aromas and freshness. They especially love herbs like oregano, which grows wild, and fresh lemons – they use olive oil and lemons with everything!”

Lemons and olive oil in a picnic basket

Lemons are the other stars of the Mediterranean diet. Greeks use them on salads, for baking, on fish, in drinks, sweets, and raw. Lemons, like olive oil, help fight a myriad of illnesses. With only 25 calories per one glass of lemon juice, this Mediterranean fruit is rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and pectin fiber. Lemons fight cancer with 22 compounds. The lemon peel contains a phytonutrient called tangeretin, which fights Parkinson’s disease. In addition, lemons are great for the liver, acting like a detoxifier, and for balancing your body’s pH because of their acidic and alkaline-forming nature. Lemons are the only fruits that are anionic. Most foods are cationic. At cellular level, when the anions and cations meet, they make beautiful music together, i.e. they produce energy. If you drink a glass of water with lemon juice first thing in the morning, not only will you get a boost of energy but you will jump-start your digestive system and get rid of morning breath, since lemons have anti-bacterial powers. Ever heard of vitamin P? Lemons have it and they help strengthen blood vessels and lower blood pressure. There’s really very little that lemons cannot help. They decrease cholesterol, increase bone health, fortify the immune system, and even help with weight loss. Especially if you use them with a light diet, such as the Mediterranean one.

Lemon fish

“My mom is from Greece and she used a lots of lemons—lots and lots of lemons,” said Tina Peroulas, an American-born Greek who honors her parents’ roots by overseeing the ordering and cooking for the annual Greek Fest in Knoxville. Tina’s mom came to the U.S. and spoke no English. She learned how to cook at an early age from her grandmother, who also raised her. She always used fresh ingredients. “My favorite food is fresh fish, like red snapper, baked with vegetables and lemons, and the Greek basic fours: salt, pepper, olive oil, and oregano. You can really feel the flavor—and feel fuller– when you bake instead of frying. And I am thrilled that I can get whole snapper at Whole Foods. I like to cook it with olive oil, lots of lemon juice, salt, and pepper but you can also make a sauce with tomato paste. You saute some onions and then lots of deiced onions, celery, garlic, parsley, and put them on top of the fish while it’s cooking – it will give it a whole different flavor. Take the tail, head, and fins and make a great fish soup, with potatoes, carrots, and, of course, lots of lemon!”

Some things, like fish soup, might not be in everyone’s comfort zone. For Lori Likonis, who married into a Greek family, fish heads and tails are off the menu. Her husband’s father was George Regas, one of the brothers who started Regas restaurant in 1919. “For a lot of Greek immigrants, food – and cooking – was something that they knew, loved, and could turn into a business in this new country. A lot of Greek families in the community had restaurants in the 1900s and they found comfort in the Greek Orthodox Church community. Food plays a huge role in the Greek culture and here, in the U.S., it serves as a unifier between cultures.” Lori was introduced to many Greek foods and took a while to warm up to some of them. “When I started dating my now-husband, I remember taking my first taste of Feta cheese. The smell just grossed me out but when I actually tried it, I loved it Now I put it on everything, including salads, pizza, noodles, and vegetables. It’s great on toast, with a little bit of honey. Now I really like Greek food and I enjoyed my mother in law’s cooking. She is a fantastic cook and a lot of the Regas recipes are in that authentic Greek style, old world cooking, with lots of olive oil, lemons, and herbs. It’s really delicious.”

Lemons in a basket

Eat like a Greek!

You don’t have to be in Greece or be Greek to eat like one. In the summer, look for your local purveyors (farms or farmers markets) for fresh veggies and herbs you might need for a true Mediterranean feast. No matter how skilled you are or aren’t in the kitchen, the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow.  So, this summer, go Greek: get plenty of olives, lemons, and sunshine!

Summer farmers market: lemons

Get Mediterranean recipes with olive oil and lemons.

This article was originally published in Cityview Magazine—July/August 2015.

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