• The traditional Mediterranean diet features locally produced, seasonal foods that are in their natural state and have not been processed. (E+/Getty Images)Source: E+/Getty Images
Markos Dymiotis, 76, is a fan of the traditional Mediterranean diet he remembers enjoying in Greece as a child. What he's not so big on is the modern interpretation of the famed healthy eating plan.
By
Markos Dymiotis, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

2 Mar 2020 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2020 - 10:52 AM

People often ask me if I am vegetarian. My reply is, ‘no. I’m just Greek’.

I was raised in the village of Argos, Greece. In Greece, when I was growing up, our diet was predominately plant-based, although we did eat a minimal amount of animal-based foods like fish and dairy.

As a child, I used to eat haloumi cheese. My mother used to tell us ‘eat very little of that cheese. With each mouthful of haloumi, have another mouthful of bread and a little bit of tomato sauce to go with it’. This instruction was to ensure you ate bread to fill you up. Haloumi cheese was only put on the plate as a way to add flavour  and to add taste to the bread.

People often ask me if I am vegetarian. My reply is, ‘no. I’m just Greek’.

These days, some people eat Mediterranean foods like haloumi cheese because it’s part of the Mediterranean diet, which is considered to be healthy. But, if the bite of cheese is a lot larger than the biscuit or bread it is served on, that is not really the Mediterranean way.

It’s these sort of practices, which differ from the way people in the Mediterranean used to eat, which makes the Mediterranean diet very much misunderstood.

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The Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest diets in the world, is the traditional diet that people in Mediterranean countries followed before the 1960s.

Although the philosophies of the traditional diet are still very sound from an environmental, health and affordability perspective, the modern Mediterranean diet is merely an interpretation of the traditional diet. In my opinion, regrettably, many of the true traditional Mediterranean diet and its practical aspects have gone.

The Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest diets in the world, is the traditional diet that people in Mediterranean countries followed before the 1960s.

The traditional Mediterranean diet features locally produced, seasonal foods that are in their natural state and have not been processed. The only processing exception is wheat that has been milled for the purpose of making bread.

Meanwhile, the modern Mediterranean diet people eat today includes a lot of highly processed and packaged foods.

How I used to eat in Greece

In the past, the bread consumed in Greece was sourdough made with wheat that had been milled in a traditional stone mill. Bread makers sifted the flour to get rid of the bran and that was all the processing done. Meanwhile, the modern bread we eat undergoes a lot more processing.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is also meant to be plant-based with a small amount of animal-based foods like cheese, eggs, milk and fish. Meat served in small proportions, was only eaten once a month or once a week. We would cook it with green beans or potatoes, and the meat was hidden in the vegetables.

But that the traditional Mediterranean diet wasn’t just about specific types of food eaten. It was also about how you ate food and the customs surrounding it.

For example, traditionally, meat was always cooked with the bones still in it. When we had finished eating the meat, we licked the bones clean. Now, there’s a lot of waste as people often don’t cook meat with the bones still in it. That means people miss out on all the extra nutrients.

But that the traditional Mediterranean diet wasn’t just about specific types of food eaten. It was also about how you ate food and the customs surrounding it.

One of the most common dishes in the Mediterranean region is the traditional salad. It consisted primarily of vegetables dressed with olive oil and lemon and was eaten practically with every meal. The idea of the salad was that it provided the vitamin C required to absorb iron from your animal or plant-based protein in your main meal.

If people these days eat a main meal but don’t consume a salad, they are not staying true to the nutritional principles behind the Mediterranean diet.

The other custom associated with the Mediterranean salad was the dipping of the bread in salad juice. This was done to mop up the nutrients left behind in the salad juice. So even if you eat a traditional salad but throw out the juice, the most nutritious part of your salad will have gone down the sink.

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These days, it may prove hard to follow the traditional style of unprocessed Mediterranean diet as it was intended without growing all the vegetables yourself and milling your own wheat.

But people can follow the simple ways of Mediterranean diet and eat fresh food, in season that’s grown locally.

However, the most important step that home cooks should stick to, if they want to say as true to the traditional diet as they can, is to choose unprocessed plant foods and follow a substantially vegetarian diet.

Always aim to eat naturally, not just healthily.

Mark is a traditional Mediterranean diet enthusiast and an honorary research fellow at La Trobe University, researching various aspects of the traditional Mediterranean diet.

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