■ By JESS MILLER
THE Greek cuisine is one of the most historically rich cuisines around the world, with its origins dating back several millennia. However, over time, the cuisine has changed due to absorption of a number of influences like the Turkish cuisine owing to the roughly four centuries of the Ottoman Empire. The Greek cuisine has also had an influence on many cuisines around the world too.
Greek foods form part of the Mediterranean Diet which has attracted a lot of attention over the past two decades as a diet with a lot of health benefits like the increased health of the brain, better heart health due to less cholesterol, controlled blood pressure and many other benefits.
Scientists believe that through a healthy intake of fat, healthy carbohydrates which are at low glycemic index, a lot of fiber presence in the diet, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, the Mediterranean Diet is able to significantly reduce the risk of some of the common ailments that are plaguing us today.
This article takes an exploration into 14 of the Greek foods that are scientifically proven to be healthy. Additionally, the article also provides five tasty and super healthy Greek recipes to try out in order to experience the Greek cuisine in a confidently healthy way.
1. Avgolemono (Egg-Lemon Sauce)
Avgolemono otherwise known as the egg-lemon sauce is a Greek food which is made by mixing broth with egg yolk and lemon juice, then thickened by heating – hence its name. It can be taken as a sauce or as a soup. As a sauce, it can be used for warm stuffed vegetables or dolma, for vegetables and for the dishes which are more stew-like.
As a soup, the lemon juice and egg yolk are mostly mixed with chicken broth although broths from lamb meat, vegetables or fish are also sometimes used. Before the egg and lemon juice mixture is added, rice is cooked in the broth, giving the final food a variation of near stew and nearly soup. Chicken soup has been recommended as a good remedy for flu due to the compound carnosine found in it although it is temporary.
Of particular interest in this food is the combination of eggs and lemons which have been scientifically proven to be very healthy components of the human diet. Eggs for instance act as healthy calorie sources of about 150 kcal/100g, excellent quality source of protein, can be prepared in many different methods and are economically affordable.
Eggs also contain a significant amount of fat-soluble compounds, a property which makes them safe for people of all ages and all stages. They are a highly nutritious and affordable food, providing an amazing amount of 18 vitamins and minerals. Some nutrients found in eggs are very healthy since they protect the human body from a lot of degenerative actions, including the cardiovascular disease.
It has been evidenced by several studies that lemon fruit promotes health and has a lot of phenolic compounds, important oils, fibers, carotenoids, minerals and vitamins. Although not yet proven in humans, studies using Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats have shown that lemon juice has a suppressive effect and crude flavonoid on blood pressure. Amazingly, even the water extract from lemon peels tested on the SHR also showed a suppressive effect on the blood pressure.
Bottom Line: Avgolemono contains eggs and lemons rich in nutrients which have been proven to have good effects on health and mostly important in the control of blood pressure and avoidance of cardiovascular disease.
2. Baked Sardines
Sardines are small oily fish which are among the richest natural sources of essential Omega 3 fatty acids. Fish is a common component of the Greek cuisine. Fatty fish intake has often been associated with a lot of health benefits.
Sardines provide for the body above half of the recommended intake of EPA and DHA fats which are very important for brain health, cardiac health and reduction of inflammation. 100 grams of sardines provides 473 milligrams of EPA and 509 milligrams of DHA. Studies have proven that the risk of death due to a heart disease can be reduced by as much as approximately 25%.
The DHA is also important for brain health – to healthy brain development in young children as well as promoting healthy aging of the brain in mature adults.
Sardines also have a high protein, vitamin D, phosphorus and calcium content which makes the ideal for healthy bones. One can of sardine provides almost a third of the recommended daily calcium dosage which is provided in a form that is highly absorbable.
They are usually baked using olive oil, seasoning, and lemons.
Bottom Line: Sardines are a rich source of essential Omega 3 oils and proteins which are important in reducing the risk of cardiac diseases, improve brain health and reduce inflammation. They also contain calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D which are good for strong bones.
These are stuffed grape leaves which are usually served as a main dish or an appetizer. Herbs, rice and sometimes even meat is used to stuff the grape leaves. However, the material used to stuff varies and hence the nutritional content varies too.
Despite the variations, grape leaves have high amounts of dietary fiber and low in calorie content. They have significant amounts of vitamin K and vitamin A as well.
In addition to the high dietary fiber, vitamin K and vitamin A content, grape leaves have very high levels of antioxidants. Studies suggest that the antioxidant activity found in grape leaves is ten times that found in grape juice or pulp.
More amazingly, people who suffer from chronic venous insufficiency, a condition which makes blood flow through the veins difficult, are in luck for leaves of red grape may improve the circulation of blood.
Different spices and herbs are used to flavor dolmades. These also have a lot of health benefits and form an important part of the Greek cuisine.
Many dolmades use the herbs parsley and another one known as dill in their recipes.
The parsley herb is a very rich source of vitamin K whereby just five sprigs are enough to provide all and even more than enough of the daily vitamin K needs. Vitamin K is an important factor of the blood clotting process and also promotes bone and cardiac health.
Dill as an herb in dolmades is rich in antioxidants and helps the process of digestion a lot. It also slows down the growth of pathogenic bacteria and fungus.
Bottom Line: Dolmades are stuffed grape leaves rich in nutrition. They also contain antioxidants which delay the growth of pathogenic organisms and vitamin K which promotes bone and cardiac health.
4. Fakes Soupa
This is basically the Greek version of lentil soup. It is a very common and affordable meal in the Greek diet. It is a vegetarian meal as well because it does not contain any animal or dairy products.
Fakes soupa is an ideal source of dietary fiber and protein. A single cup of lentils which are the main ingredients of fakes soupa provides 16 grams of fiber and 18 grams of protein.
Apart from the dietary fiber and protein, the fakes soupa is rich in vitamins and minerals too. Some of the nutrients contained in a cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils are molybdenum, folic acid, iron, manganese, zinc and vitamin B1.
The fakes soupa is particularly important for vegetarians to compensate the low levels of iron, zinc, and protein in their diet.
Additionally, studies have suggested that the lentils used in fakes soupa might help to control the blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and can also help fight cancer.
Bottom Line: Fakes soupa is lentil soup which is rich in fiber, protein and a lot of other nutrients. Its benefits are that it supplements a vegetarian’s diet supply of zinc, iron, and proteins and helps control blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol level and helps fight cancer.
5. Gigantes Plaki
Gigantes comes from the Greek name used to refer to giants while plaki is an oven-baked dish with vegetables. Thus, the term gigantes plaki refers to giant white beans which are baked in a sauce of tomatoes.
However, these Gigantes beans are sometimes hard to find and therefore other large white or lima beans are used in their place.
These white beans are full of nutrients. It is important to note that beans are a common delicacy throughout Greece and are very nutrient-concentrated.
Once again, beans are an ideal protein source for vegetarians.
These beans are also an excellent idea for weight loss due to their high dietary fiber and protein content.
More so, studies have proven that beans have an effect on cardiac health. People who consume higher quantities of beans are at lower risk of getting a heart disease. Diabetes and blood sugar are also controlled by beans as is known.
Bottom Line: Gigantes plaki are large white beans which are baked in a sauce of tomatoes. Beans are very nutrient-dense and are an ideal source of proteins for vegetarians and have also been associated with lots of other health benefits including cardiac health and blood sugar control.
6. Horiatiki Salad (Greek Salad)
In Greek, horiatiki is used to refer to a villager so a horiatiki salad is a villager’s salad.
It is basically made using onions, pieces of tomatoes, olives, sliced cucumbers and feta cheese. The feta cheese is usually served in the form of rectangular pieces spread over the salad. Vinegar and olive oil are then used to dress these. All of these components are rich in nutrients and are very common in Greek cuisine.
The vegetable making up the salad make it a rich source of dietary fiber. In addition, vegetables have significant amounts of antioxidants and nutrients such as potassium, vitamin K and vitamin C.
The olive in the salad coupled with the olive oil dressing contains healthy fats which are monounsaturated. These monounsaturated fats are important since they reduce the risk of getting a heart attack or stroke and also decrease inflammation.
The feta is usually sprinkled on the salad and is also a common component of the Greek cuisine.
Milk from sheep or goats is used to make feta. The high content of calcium, protein, and phosphorus is good for bone health. As a matter of fact, feta contains more calcium than the majority of other cheeses.
Bottom Line: Horiatiki salad is made up of vegetables which are rich in nutrients, olive oil, and olives which have monounsaturated fats good for cardiac health and feta which has a high calcium content good for bone health.
7. Grilled Salmon
Just as the name suggests, this is salmon which has been grilled. It is usually served with salad. It is as well a fish and as has been mentioned before, fish form an important part of the Greek cuisine. Grilled salmon is seasoned with salt and pepper for taste and can be served with either Greek salad or tzatziki, another super healthy food we shall look at.
Salmon, in particular, has loads of health benefits for humans. It is considered one of the best long-chain omega-3 sources, providing the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. 100 gram of farmed salmon can produce 2.3 grams of omega-3 while 100 grams of wild salmon can contain up to 2.6 grams of omega-3. Omega-3 reduces inflammation, lowers the blood pressure, improves the function of cells on the arterial walls and reduces the risk of cancer.
Salmon is also a great protein source, rich in B-vitamins, good potassium source and loaded with selenium and the antioxidant astaxanthin.
All these compounds in salmon help it to be able to reduce the risk of heart diseases, aid in weight control, helps reduce inflammation, promotes brain health and what’s more? It is delicious and the delicate, unique flavor is undeniable.
Bottom Line: Grilled salmon as other fishes in the Greek cuisine has a lot of health benefits including reducing the risk of heart diseases, aiding in weight control, reducing inflammation and promoting brain health among others.
8. Horta Vrasta
Horta vrasta basically translates to boiled greens in English and is a common meal in Greek households. This delicacy is usually dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
In the traditional horta vrasta, wild greens are usually used. All across the Mediterranean, an often overlooked aspect of the diet is high consumption of greens.
Majority of wild greens contain very high levels of antioxidants. A study showed that a lot of the wild greens have relatively higher antioxidant amounts than blueberries.
Most foods lose antioxidants during boiling. These antioxidants are well retained by wild greens even when boiled unlike in other foods as a research has shown.
For the preparation of this dish, any green leafy vegetables can be used. Some greens which are commonly used are mustard greens, dandelion greens, endive, spinach, and chicory.
The nutrient content of the meal depends therefore on the vegetables used. However, it is common for all greens to have high levels of vitamin K and fiber content and still low-calorie content.
In addition, all leafy green vegetables are also rich in dietary nitrates content which have been proven by recent studies to have the ability to lower blood pressure and lowering glaucoma risk.
Bottom Line: Horta vrasta are boiled vegetables which have high amounts of antioxidants as well as dietary nitrates which help in lowering blood pressure and lowering glaucoma risk.
Hummus is a common dip popular in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It is made from mashed or cooked chickpeas (or other beans) mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, tahini (sesame seeds which have been grounded), salt and garlic. This dip is both delicious and extremely healthy as well. It can also be eaten with pita bread.
However, the hummus recipes vary slightly and therefore the nutritional content also varies. The main ingredient of commonly known hummus, chickpeas, has significant amounts of proteins, B vitamins, dietary fiber and other nutrients. They are also known as garbanzo beans. These assist in weight management, cardiac health, and blood sugar control.
Hummus contains approximately 170 calories per 100 grams and is a recommendable source of fat which composes approximately 14% of the meal, majorly from the ground sesame seeds and the olive oil.
Olive oil has been associated with many health benefits. These include reduced inflammation, improved brain health, reduced risk of heart diseases and stroke and also helps in fighting against cancer as earlier mentioned.
Bottom Line: Hummus is a common dip made from cooked chickpeas mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, and tahini. It is a meal rich in dietary fiber, proteins, healthy fats and other nutrients which have many health benefits.
Melitzanosalata is Greek for eggplant salad although it is actually a dip and not a salad. It is a blend or mash of roasted eggplants with lemon juice, and olive oil. This dish has a striking similarity to the dish from the Middle East known as baba ghanoush.
Eggplants contain a good amount of dietary fiber and antioxidants which counter free radicals that are in the environment or that are produced by the process of food breakdown in the body. The cell damage caused by these free radicals has been associated with cancers, aging and chronic diseases.
Research has it that eggplants also reduce free radicals and improve brain health through a powerful antioxidant found in them called nasunin.
More so, lemon juice and garlic are used to flavor the dip. They also common components of a Greek cuisine and have numerous health benefits. For instance, garlic is a good immune system booster and helps avoid cardiac ailments. Lemons, on the other hand, have a high content of vitamin C which is good for heart health and which may reduce the risk of getting kidney stones.
The many health benefits of olive oil cannot be overemphasized too.
This meal is usually used for dipping bread and vegetables as an appetizer but can also be spread on a sandwich.
Bottom Line: Melitzanosalata is a dip made by blending roasted eggplants with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. It is an ideal source of dietary fiber and antioxidants which help counter harmful free radicals.
11. Saganaki Shrimp
Saganaki shrimp is a meal named after the pan used to prepare and serve it. Saganaki is a heavy copper frying pan with two handles in Greek. The dish itself is a traditional delicacy which doubles up as a tasty and healthy appetizer.
This dish features shrimp in tasty tomato sauce. The shrimp though small have many health benefits when eaten with or as a meal.
Shrimps contain only 106 calories per 100 grams and also contains a number of proteins. They are low in mercury content unlike many fish.
The shrimp provides iron which plays a crucial role in hemoglobin formation. Thus, it helps the body in the production of red-blood cells which perform the role of ensuring proper oxygenation of blood and consequently improves the brain health.
Shrimps also contain high levels of the mineral magnesium. Magnesium assists the body to relax vessels and hence reduce migraines. Additionally, magnesium helps reduce the chance of sleep disorders and risk of insomnia by keeping the body metabolism in check. This is because it has been found to have a direct effect on the quality, length, and calmness of sleep.
Per 100 grams of shrimp, one can obtain 54% of the daily recommendation of selenium. Selenium improves bone health by strengthening and lengthening the durability. Selenium also strengthens nails, hair, and teeth. Furthermore, selenium itself is a powerful antioxidant which gets rid of free radicals in the body.
The minerals which are found in shrimp such as phosphorus, calcium, zinc and even vitamin D also help a lot in establishing strong bones and general bone health.
Shrimp contains elements of B-vitamin complex such as B12 and B3. Vitamin B12 helps in the production of energy, formation of blood, synthesis of DNA and formation of myelin –the fatty substance around brain cells. Vitamin B3 or niacin is known to increase the levels of the good cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Deficiency of vitamin B3 leads to a condition known as
Pellagra which is characterized by dementia, dermatitis, and insomnia among others.
Bottom Line: This dish is made of a shrimp in tomato sauce. It has high levels of proteins, low calories and loaded with antioxidants.
Part II with 5 recipes in our December issue