THE BLOG
01/26/2015 02:31 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Back to the Future: Capitalizing on the Traditional Greek Diet is a Key Part of Solving the Crisis for Greeks

Amy Neunsinger via Getty Images

As early as the 4th century B.C., Hippocrates from Cos, the ancient Greek physician who is considered the founding father of western medicine, was spreading the word about the unquestionable value of a healthy diet, writing characteristically: "Let food be the medicine and medicine be the food." Today, more than two and one-half millennia later, and after a plethora of epidemiological studies that are undeniably in favor of his sayings, the interrelated epidemics of obesity and diabetes are growing rapidly both in USA and in Europe. As a result, we witness a rapid and massive wave turning back towards the health benefits of the traditional Greek Mediterranean Diet.

The underlying dietary principles of Greece's traditional diet are incorporated into formal nutritional guidelines and used by many major health organizations. In addition, food products in supermarkets, restaurants and health clubs are highlighting their "Greekness" (real or not) so as to persuade the public of their high nutritional value and in an attempt to capitalize on this popular trend. It is becoming crystal clear, based on the perfect agreement between the scientific community and the market that the Greek Mediterranean Diet is a sector with a huge potential that needs to be utilized and exploited as a natural resource which can help solve the Greek economic crisis; one that Greeks painfully have experienced too closely in the last years.

Realizing the convergence of market trends and scientific knowledge around this Greek natural resource stands, the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency (OEMR) at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) as a part of the OEMR's ongoing Initiative for Productivity and Health Management in collaboration with the PBS show, The Cooking Odyssey, organized a two-day Conference on "Mediterranean Diet and Workplace Health". This unique and innovative conference featured lectures, panels, and selected chef-supervised meals aiming to increase awareness, appeal, and understanding of Greek Mediterranean dietary habits as a vehicle for improved workplace health.

An associated Greek food/wine expo was also held as a way to increase the reputation of Greek products and boost Greek tourism among Americans. The Conference Chairs welcomed more than 125 participants from 9 different countries across the globe as well as throughout the USA. There was representation from 13 different universities such as Harvard, John Hopkins's, and the University of Pennsylvania along with a plethora of disciplines such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, nutrition, fitness, government & military, fire/ police, labor, academics, food service , and gastronomy. Moreover, the participation of members of top international companies such as Proctor & Gamble, General Electric, and Johnson & Johnson further contributed to a broad interest in the happenings of the conference from many different perspectives. Commercial support for the academic conference and expo was provided by names well-known in Greece (e.g. FAGE USA, Chateau NicoLazardi, and the Greek National Tourism Office) as well as smaller enterprises from Greece and the Greek-American community.

These ground-breaking events in Boston were considered to be an unquestionable success, focused to a great extent on emphasizing to the three basic pillars that uniquely surround the Greek Diet; the history, the culture, as well as the scientific evidence in favor of it. Harvard Professors, Dr. Walter Willett and others, provided an in-depth summary of the major epidemiologic evidence of the last decades indicating the unquestionable benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. Dr. Willett further elaborated on Mediterranean Diet patterns as the "Rolls Royce" of healthy eating habits as supported by their association with better health status, greater longevity, and positive effects on chronic diseases. This two-day symposium managed not only to greatly and effectively disseminate the current knowledge regarding Greek Mediterranean Diet, but also to combine all this knowledge and expertise with hands-on, live tasting of traditional and health-conscious Greek food and wine. Two Greek chefs of worldwide-renown, Michael Psillakis and Dianne Kochilas, served as key conference faculty, and together with Harvard's chefs and local and international Greek businesses brought the conference participants in touch with the fascinating combination of flavors and sensations that make the Greek diet so unique. Therefore, this first attempt at bridging taste and health Greek-style made the pallets of a Fire Chief from Alabama, a student from Japan and a doctor from Canada all succumb favorably to the tastes and colors of Greek dishes. This experience proved that healthy eating could also be delicious and fun.

On the top of this, a critical part of this unbelievable success was the fact that this multicultural group of people not only started to have some knowledge around the principles of Greek Mediterranean Diet but also around the potential to apply the basic nutritional principles to other non-Mediterranean cuisines as well. We are confident that this type of knowledge translation could assist people from different backgrounds create gradually the necessary consciousness to apply the principles of Greek diet in their personal lives at home and work, while also serving better meals for their children.

We strongly believe that now is the time when the reigns of this colossal effort should be reverted to the place where everything started, to Greece, "where it all began." It is time that the international terrain is mature enough, to embrace more and more Greek traditional eating, based not only on agreement among top professors and chefs, but also after witnessing a gigantic demand in the market. Greek foods are becoming a trend around the world and with great timing, so as to be able to give the opportunity to Greeks to utilize their natural resource and create sustainable paths that will lead the crisis to its end. It is well known that times of crisis are characterized by huge risk, but also by unbelievably huge opportunities. So, let's have Greece grasp this enormous opportunity and make herself the ambassador who will help everyone around the world to eat better and live healthier by exploring the best hidden secrets of the Greek gastronomy.

Therefore, we believe authorities within Greece should take the initiative and boost actively the consumption and export of Greek products, as vital components of the spirit of the Greek Mediterranean Diet. Critical to the rebirth of this gigantic effort, which will not only help financially, but will also revive the morale of the Greeks, is the creation and strengthening of promotional networks of Greek products. An outstanding paradigm which also confirms the potential for success of such initiatives comes from YOLENI'S, one of the Boston expo's sponsors. A group of Greek professionals who came together, believed in the value of the Greek diet and took the risk, creating an e-shop with a wide variety of Greek food and wine products. The YOLENI'S team finds these products by traveling all around Greece to come in contact with outstanding local producers, make deals and make these goods accessible outside Greece.

In conclusion, the evidence of the international scientific community is compelling in favor of the Greek Mediterranean Diet, and the market is in love with anything Greek, while at the same time Greece is in such a tough situation. It is time for Greeks, all over the world, to believe in and promote our diet, an integral part of our national wealth and use it as an indisputable natural resource to combat the painful and unprecedented Greek crisis.