It's no secret that the Mediterranean Diet is one of the most lauded diets in the world. It is also the most thoroughly studied diet in human history, recommended by medical professionals and nutritionists alike, celebrated for its benefits, sustainability and easy recipes, which feature lots of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrain, nuts and legumes.
Nutritionist Dimitra Papamichou was born and raised in Lamia, Greece, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia where she has established two successful practices. She is a leading advocate of the Mediterranean Diet and has been heavily involved in its research.
GCT recently had a chat with Dimitra to find out more about her passion for nutrition, her dedication to the Mediterranean Diet, what she eats each day, her meal suggestions for Lent and tips for sustainable weight loss.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Lamia, a small city in Central Greece approximately 2 hours away from Athens. When I was 5, my family migrated to Germany where we spent 5 years.
In 2010 I visited Australia for the first time to visit my son and I was amazed by the beauty of Sydney and the multicultural environment.
On my way, back to Greece it occurred to me that this would be the country that I would spend the rest of my life. My son’s determination to plan his future in Australia had a lot to do with it and I made the permanent move to Sydney in 2013.
Were you aware of nutrition and healthy eating from a young age or did that come later?
I was not just aware, I was obsessed! After the age of 12 years old I read every single book about nutrition and there wasn’t a diet that I hadn’t tried!
My passion for nutrition has never stopped. The only difference now is that I am focused on evidence-based nutrition and not opinions that sound scientific. These days everyone is a nutrition ‘expert!’ Everyone has an opinion and this is a good thing if it comes from researching the literature. Unfortunately a lot of information about nutrition is money-driven or there is a lack of knowledge.
I made it my life’s mission to put research into clinical practice. If people knew how powerful evidence-based nutrition is, they wouldn’t follow all these fad diets and they wouldn’t swallow all these supplements!
Tell us about your journey with nutrition, how did it become a career path?
It all started at the Department of Clinical Care and Pulmonary Medicine in one of the largest public hospitals of Athens, where I was involved in research into smoking cessation and weight gain in diabetic and cardiovascular disease patients.
It was there when I heard the most shocking thing from a woman that participated in the trial. She was afraid of smoking cessation because of the risk of putting on weight. She said to me: “Listen, I prefer to die of lung cancer than putting on weight!” I was shocked! But that was the exact point where I realised why people are willing to follow all these extreme and sometimes dangerous diets or to consume supplements that promise miracles. It was the lack of knowledge. The wrong information about nutrition. My goal from that moment would be to educate myself and my clients as much as I could.
Socrates said “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. And that’s so true. We need to be constantly updated as things change and new scientific data comes up in regards to nutrition.
One of the greatest experiences in my career was presenting a TV program about Nutrition and Wellbeing in Central Greece. I wrote the discussion agenda and provided a contact number on air for live discussion and advice. It was a great means of information for those who could not afford private consultation.
Tell us about what ignited your interest in the Mediterranean Diet? Why is this diet superior to all others?
The Mediterranean diet is not a creation of some doctors or nutritionists, nor is it a passing fad, it's a centuries-old eating lifestyle originally followed by the people living in the Mediterranean region.
It is the most well studied diet in human history and one of the healthiest dietary patterns on this planet.
The most widely researched health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are the prevention or even reversal of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression, as well as the reduction in the risk of cancer, dementia and all-cause mortality. We also have evidence that it increases longevity by lengthening our telomeres, the end of our chromosomes.
The Mediterranean diet is not simply a diet. It’s a way of living.
Love for food is nothing more than, love for life, love for mates, the sun and the sea. The joy and pleasure one can take from simple everyday things like a chat with a mate, a beach walk or a delicious, nutritional meal. This love and passion for life is embedded in every Mediterranean dish which is why it's impossible not to fall in love with the 'Mediterranean diet'. The most important aspect is that it is easy for anyone to follow for life. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they'll never eat any other way. That is the magic of the Mediterranean diet!
In your experience what are the most common mistakes people make when it comes to diet?
In my opinion, two of the biggest mistakes are:
- Focusing too much on weight loss. This can make as vulnerable to follow diets or to consume supplements that are dangerous for our health.
The only way to succeed with weight loss in the long run is by focusing on how to change our eating habits and not by eating the new “fat burning food” that promises miracles! Speaking of which there isn’t on this planet one food that burns body fat!
The big challenge for a Nutritionist is to change people’s mentality not just the body. And the only way to achieve this is by educating them because knowledge is power. The power to make the right decisions. The power that we need to change our eating habits FOREVER. So if we want to succeed with weight loss and build our dream body we need to focus on how to change our mind in the first place.
- Forcing ourselves to follow a plan that we don’t really like, or a plan that requires more cooking and preparation than we can afford. At the beginning everybody is enthusiastic. Usually what we say when we start a diet is “I can do this for 2,3 or 6 months to lose weight and then I’ll find a way to maintain it.” That’s the biggest mistake! We are surely going to fail. If we want to succeed with weight loss long-term we need to follow a nutrition plan that is very enjoyable and easy.
When you get a weight loss plan ask yourselves a simple question. “Can I do this for the rest of my life? Yes or No?” If the answer is “No” don’t waste your time and money.
What is your opinion on the numerous fad diets- including the system of having two 'cheat days’?
It is very important to understand that most of the information that we hear about nutrition is money-driven. There is a billion dollar industry that profits on people’s desire to lose weight quickly. They sell supplements, books, diets and super foods that promise miracles.
We have to be careful. Before following the new, shiny, detox diet we should ask for the evidence. What is the research behind it? Is it healthy?
We know from the literature that a low carb, animal-based diet could be harmful in the long run. A prospective cohort study of more than 85 000 women and more than 44 000 men showed that an animal-based, low carb diet was associated with higher all-cause mortality, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. In contrast those who followed a low carb, plant-based diet had lower all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.
Diets high in red meat and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have been shown to increase risk of chronic diseases. Fad diets are usually very high in animal protein and saturated fat. They come under different names (Atkins, Dukan etc) but the concept is pretty much the same. We need to be very careful before starting a diet plan. The goal is not to fit in a smaller coffin!
In regards to the plan of having two “cheat days” I strongly disagree with this as that type of eating won’t help people to change their eating habits. Do you know how our mind interprets that? That healthy eating is miserable and eating convenient food is happiness, which is the wrong way to think about food. There are so many delicious healthy meals out there that there is no reason to have two “cheat days”!
What are some of the benefits people can expect to see soon after adopting the Mediterranean diet?
First of all let’s define what the Mediterranean diet is. It is not Greek souvlaki or gyros! This is a very small part of it! The Mediterranean diet is a mostly, but not exclusively, plant-based diet. What we can expect to see soon after following such a dietary pattern are the benefits of a very well balanced mostly plant based diet full of antioxidants, fibre and good fat. We see our energy levels skyrocket, our skin shine, our weight reducing without putting much effort and we feel rejuvenated! And these are only the short term results.
Describe to us your typical day on a plate?
For breakfast I usually have: oats, weet-bix or muesli with walnuts, flaxseed, almond milk and Greek honey, or homemade sourdough bread made with wholemeal, spelt and rye flour with tahini and honey. If I’m very hungry I can eat leftovers from dinner or a vegetarian sandwich made with my homemade bread. I also have a hot cup of cacao very often. I love it!
I snack a lot but only fruit, unsalted nuts or dried fruit. I literally can’t stay without food for more than 2-3 hours. That’s how my body functions and I respect that.
Lunch is usually simple and mostly vegetarian or vegan. I usually have leftovers from dinner or a vegetarian sandwich or salad. Once a week it could be a smoked trout salad or an omelet with veggies and egg whites on sourdough bread.
Dinner is Mediterranean food! Simple and delicious! It could be a lentil soup with a green salad, spinach with rice, green beans, baked beans with spinach, stuffed tomatoes, briam and all these mouthwatering plant-based Greek recipes.
I have fish once or twice a week, chicken or turkey once a week and red meat less often (once a month). I don’t drink alcohol as I can’t tolerate it.
For my sweet cravings I usually make a yummy chocolate pudding or a chocolate smoothie. Both recipes are vegan, packed with antioxidants and fibre and the taste is unbelievable!
With Greeks now being in the middle of Sarakosti (Lent), what are some meal ideas from the Mediterranean Diet they can cook during this period of fasting?
Sarakosti means being vegan with the exception of seafood consumption. There are hundreds of delicious recipes. I would put legumes on the top of the list. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas are packed with fibre, protein, vitamins and we know from the literature that pulses may be the most important predictor of survival in older people from around the world.
Some meal ideas are lentil soup with a green salad (to increase iron absorption), the classic chickpea soup with oregano and lots of lemon, baked beans in the oven (yummy) with salad or horta, black eye pea salad (ideal for lunch or a light dinner). One of my favorite vegan Greek meals is baked chickpeas with green, red and yellow red peppers. You can have it with a salad and sourdough bread and believe me you will lick your fingers!
We have to be a bit careful with seafood consumption as seafood is high in cholesterol. I would suggest to consume it no more than twice a week and for those with high cholesterol levels less often. Delicious meal ideas are cuttlefish with spinach, prawn saganaki (without feta cheese), stuffed calamari with rice, baked or boiled octopus with lemon potatoes and wild leafy greens (xorta).
But fasting doesn’t necessarily mean healthy eating. Fried food and refined carbs can destroy that wonderful dietary pattern. And this is why many people actually put on weight during the Sarakosti! So try to avoid fried food and replace refined carbs with whole grains.
Yemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) or spanakorizo with brown rice is also delicious!!
In regards to olive oil we have to be a bit careful. It is the Ferrari of oils, no question, but it’s also packed with a lot of calories. We need to use it wisely if we don’t want to put on weight!
In a nutshell, Sarakosti teaches us how to eat more plant-based meals, and this is a great lesson on how to live a long and healthy life.
What has been a career highlight for you?
The success stories of my clients. When a client tells me that their life has completely changed, when someone reverses their chronic disease and gets off their medications just because they changed their diet, when a client maintains their weight loss for years. These are my career highlights.
I could probably also say my TV show in Central Greece, or the research that I was involved but nothing is more rewarding and important than helping someone improve their quality of life.
What are some of the challenges you face in your profession?
A “mind transformation” is far more challenging and difficult than a body transformation. To help someone lose weight is not as hard as helping them change the way they think about food, but that’s the only way to succeed with weight loss long term. My ultimate goal is to put my clients in that minority of the population who succeed permanently with their weight and wellbeing goals.
What are some initial tips you can give to someone who is feeling overwhelmed about losing weight and changing their eating habits?
Ok, I would advise them to forget about all they think they know about nutrition and dieting and focus only on one nutrient. Fibre! And aim for a lot of it every day. Go beyond the recommendation if possible!
If they do that they are going to lose weight without counting calories and at the same time put themselves on the right track regarding nutrition.
To achieve a high fibre intake means that you have to eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, seeds and nuts. Fibre helps you feel full, regulates your blood sugar levels and doesn’t leave much space for unhealthy food options.
Here are some specific steps to get you started:
- Eat vegetables with every meal
- Eat fresh fruit every day and dried fruit and nuts as snacks or dessert
- Include wholegrain breads and unprocessed cereals or pseudo cereal (if you are sensitive to gluten) with meals
- Include at least two legumes meals per week
It is also essential to find delicious recipes so that you really enjoy eating your veggies. People from the Mediterranean know how to do that and this is how they manage to eat 500 grams of vegetables each day!
Always remember that each initial step towards a healthy diet has to become a habit if you want to succeed in the long run.