The big fat Greek diet: how to lose weight while eating stacks of feta and guzzling olive oil

I have lived in Athens for the last six months. I have eaten mountains of feta cheese and consumed whole shoals of fish. I have downed litres of red wine and gone clucking mad for eggs. I have had my salads so slathered in oily dressing that I feel like a tanker spill.

I have also lost a stone.

Admittedly, this isn’t a vast amount. Friends who have done the 5:2, Atkins or Viva Mayr diets have shed that amount — the holy 14 pounds — in more like two months than six. But, invariably, the weight comes back on the second their intensive regime lapses. They are also miserable and ravenously hungry, with bad breath and grey skin. In Greece my skin was completely clear and a lovely café crème shade; my hair was thicker; I bounced out of bed in the morning full of energy. Best of all, I wasn’t hungry.

The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet have long been known about. The Seven Countries Study was the first to evaluate the links between diet, lifestyle and the risk of heart attack. From 1958 to 1970, the study observed men living in countries as diverse as Finland, Japan, Greece and America. Dr Ancel Keys and his team found that countries with a varied diet based on monounsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables and legumes had a lower risk of heart disease than countries whose diets were based on wheat, meat and sugar. And the best of the bunch? Crete, where 40 per cent of the diet came from healthy fats.

It turns out, though, that the Mediterranean diet isn’t just good for your heart: it’s good for your gut, too. Increasingly studies are pointing towards the importance of a diverse microbe culture — otherwise known as ‘good bacteria’ — in the gut as the key to health. Giulia Enders’s 2014 bestseller Gut posited links between gut health and everything from inflammation to Alzheimer’s. The revolting phrase ‘gut flora’ is now thrown around with abandon at every Notting Hill dinner party.

Many of us have been guzzling probiotic yoghurt drinks for years, but more recently studies have shown that such drinks are, at best, delivering fewer ‘good bacteria’ than they advertise and are, at worst, just sugary nonsense. Extra virgin olive oil and cheese, on the other hand, encourage diverse gut microbes. And multiculturism is as right-on internally as it is everywhere else. There is even a growing body of evidence that it even keeps you slim, too. So instead of downing a yoghurt drink in the morning we should be slathering our salads with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling nuts and seeds liberally over our porridge.

If you’re more concerned about your brain than your body: well, olive oil helps with that, too. A study by Columbia University, published last month in Neurology, demonstrated that those living on a Mediterranean diet have more active and alert brains. In fact, the diet reduces the amount the brain usually shrinks over time by five years.

So next lunch time consider what you eat. Half an avocado with a drizzle of oil may have more calories than a sushi platter. But while the latter is empty white-rice calories and minimal protein, the former will keep your brain from shrinking and help your gut to flourish. All hail olive oil: the world’s oldest newest superfood.

  • approveds

    The real secret of the Mediterranean diet is not cooking with extra virgin olive oil, but always having a bottle of it on the table to dribble over all your food. it combines with the nitrates, and nitrites to form nitro fatty acids which are good for your heart and organs. Walnuts are also good, the Queen mixes a small bottle of walnut oil with a litre of extra virgin olive oil and dribbles it on her food. Lycopene is important from tomatoes, use tomato pure instead of tomato sauce, mix it with garlic pure. For the Mediteranian diet on the go, a tube of tomato pure, and a tube of anchovy paste will see you through the day.

  • Humbug

    There is a useful analogy that helps to explain the difference between probiotics and decent healthy eating of foods that are good for the microbiome. It’s like the difference between chucking more grass seed on a patch of barren soil (probiotics) and fertilizing the soil (prebiotics and healthy eating). Thus, keeping your microbiome healthy – and consequently improving your immune system – is best achieved through healthy eating, of which the Mediterranean diet is an example. In addition, though, besides considering what’s in a good diet, we need to think about what’s not in it; the Mediterranean diet, for example, is very low in added sugar.