It’s funny; I just finished a two-week vacation in Greece and actually lost weight. I dropped just one pound, but my wife lost five! The strange thing is, we hardly exercised, ate out three times a day, and didn’t restrict ourselves from sweets. So how did this happen?
According to 2016 statistics, the USA has an obesity rate of 35.7% while the Greek rate is just 17.3%. Many would jump to the conclusion that it’s because of the widely-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, but that wouldn’t explain it all.The Mediterranean diet is one that has healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil and nuts, lots of fruits and veggies, and small portions of meat. This diet has been widely studied and demonstrated to reduce heart disease and death; however, it only has a modest effect on weight. There must be something else going on.It’s not just about their Mediterranean diet; it’s the overall way they live their lives. During my time in Greece, I came to realize that the Greeks are very different from Americans, and here is how:
The Greeks focus on their vegetables. Greek salads are simple, delicious, eaten all the time, and enormous. I loved the beet, cabbage, and tomato salads. Grilled veggies with balsamic vinegar was a recurring hit with my travel group. Most of the courses in every meal consisted of veggies. One of my travel partners hated eggplant but in Greece, he literally couldn’t find an eggplant dish that he didn’t fall in love with. Salads are also simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil and sometimes vinegar–never with the typical creamy ranch dressing so loved in American. We had so many incredibly tasty meals that I often ate to the point of being stuffed, but amazingly didn’t gain weight.
Most people in Greece walk, and I mean a lot. There are so many stairs and people take them regardless of their age. I know that step counters can sometimes be inaccurate, but we went over 18,000 steps multiple times during our trip. One day, we even passed 4,000 steps by 8:30am! There was a wonderful old Venetian citadel on top of a hill and to get there, we had to climb 970+ steps up, and then the same steps back down. In The U.S.A, we probably would have installed a moving sidewalk to bypass the steps. But in Greece, it was incredible to see people of all ages were making the long trek up and down.
Interesting side note: I identify as a runner, but in the two weeks I spent in Greece, I only went running twice but still kept the weight off while eating to the point of being stuffed almost every day! To me, this proves that walking truly works.
In Greece, it appeared that most meals were eaten outside on a patio. The temperate Mediterranean climate is probably what makes this possible year-round. It’s not possible to do this in many parts of the world, but I found it so refreshing to get fresh air, see the scenery, and also get some all-important vitamin D while eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, there’s really something about being out in the sun that lightens your mood. I really loved this aspect of the Greek lifestyle.
A unique version of kindness
There are so many stray dogs and cats in Greece! The young ones on our trip loved them while the parents were running out of hand sanitizer. Many of these animals seem to wander around from meal to meal and the great thing is, people actually feed them. These animals weren’t thin or bedraggled. In fact, we often saw “community bowls” of cat or dog food just lying around the street that locals contributed to. On several of our walks, dogs would join our group and walk with us. It was free pet therapy.
Pace of life
People aren’t in a hurry. It’s a novel idea for us Americans, but they seemed to actually take their time in getting from place to place. We had multiple two-hours lunches and dinners, which we would never even think of Stateside. Being present and not rushing to the next important appointment was truly relaxing (and took some getting used to).
The takeaway is this: You don’t have to move to Greece to be healthy, but it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate some of the above to make your own lifestyle healthier and more balanced. Slow down. Spend time outside. Walk more. Minus the overabundance of stray cats to pet and feed, the lifestyle I witnessed in Greece is entirely attainable from wherever you are.
Posted by Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC