Listen to Yiayia! It’s good for you! Lifestyle & Health Columnist Roula Marinos Papamihail, CHHC talks about probiotics in the Mediterranean Diet, and why they’re so good for us.
Mediterranean Diet and Probiotics
We know the Mediterranean Diet is the healthiest way to eat. Last time, we talked about some of the prebiotic superfoods in this way of eating. There’s been much discussion lately about probiotics. Read on to learn why probiotics are so important, and some examples in our traditional Mediterranean/Greek Diet.
The research surrounding probiotics, probiotic supplements, and fermented foods continue to grow. The fact that the addition of probiotics into one’s diet is a must for optimal health has gone mainstream. Not only have probiotics been linked to brain health andimmune support, but we’ve now learned that the lack of probiotics is being attributed to a number of neurodegenerative and/or psychiatric disorders as well.
What are probiotics?
The word probiotic comes from the Latin word pro (“for”) and the Greek word bios (“life”).
“Probiotics are live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. These microorganisms can be bacterial, viral, or yeast, and can generally only be seen under a microscope.” ~ World Health Organization, 2001
Best sources of probiotics
Since our society has an overall “quick fix” mentality, many individuals try to supplement with over-the-counter probiotics rather than ingesting them from more traditional sources. While there are many probiotics supplements on the market today — both effective and ineffective — research continuous to demonstrate that probiotics found in naturally fermented foods are the most potent.
Fermented foods (also referred to as cultured foods) have abundant amounts of microorganisms (probiotics) along with the added benefit of being the most efficient and stable vehicle for administration. In other words, the chances of the probiotics reaching your inner gut, are a lot higher when eaten from food, rather a supplement.
Benefits of probiotics
Let’s examine some of the benefits.
- Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol
- Kills the bacteria that cause tooth decay and lessens the effects of gingivitis
- Balances the delicate microorganisms found in the female anatomical system promoting overall physiological health
- Reduces upper respiratory infections.
- Helps ward off bloating and constipation with regular use
Fermented foods in the Mediterranean/Greek Diet are loaded with probiotics
Some parts of the world are well known for their variety of traditionally fermented dishes. Greece also encompasses a few traditional fermented foods that have been consumed for hundreds of years.
Prior to refrigeration and chemical processing methods, fermentation was the main method of food preservation. The wonderful byproduct of this ancient technique is the formulation of hundreds, if not thousands, of various healthy probiotic strains.
Let’s look at some:
Olives are considered to be one of the very first processed foods through fermentation (and/or curing). Olives are cured prior to eating due to their extremely bitter taste.
Their health benefits are many. So many in fact that there is currently an active effort to have olives classified as a functional food: afood that improves health or well-being by providing benefit beyond that of the traditional nutrients it contains.
The frequent consumption of olives has multiple health benefits, including:
- Reduces bad cholesterol
- Decreased risk of heart disease and stroke
- Helps lower blood pressure further reduce risk of generalized cardiovascular
- Reduces risk of generalized cardiovascular disease
Olives are also anti-inflammatory and are considered one of nature’s most potent mucus dissolvers in the body. In addition, the antioxidant-rich phytonutrients in olives help us to avoid “oxidative stress” and protects against the damaging effects of cellular oxidation; key factors in the development of cancer.
Pickling vs. Fermenting
Keep in mind that pickling is not the same as fermenting. Foods that are pickled are those that have been preserved in some type of acidic medium (i.e. lemon, wine, vinegar). In the case of various types of supermarket olives, the pickling often comes from vinegar and/or wine. These olives are not fermented (even though vinegar and wine itself are a product of fermentation) and hence, do not offer the probiotic value that traditionally fermented olives do.
Preparation processes for olives vary between regions, types of olives and culture. Try to source olives that have been naturally fermented in salt water brine, without the addition of chemical curing agents and/or vinegar is key if trying to consume olives for their probiotic benefits. While the research seems conflicting as to how potent olives are when trying to measure probiotic levels, recent studies continue to support their existence.
TIP: Look for olives preserved in filtered water and salt, and that form their own acidic liquid called lactic acid. These are the most beneficial, as they are a fermented food with a bio-film of probiotics.
Made from sheep’s milk or sometimes combined with goat milk, feta cheese is typically easy to digest. It’s much less allergenic and inflammatory than cheeses made from cow’s milk, making it much easier to tolerate for many that suffer from cow’s milk allergies and/or intolerances.
Interestingly, feta has been a source of legal disputes in recent decades. Some countries have tried labeling cow’s milk cheese as feta and the EU was forced to deem the term feta as a PPO “a protected product of origin,” of Greece. Other manufacturers are now required to label their similar products as “feta-style” cheeses rather than “feta”.
It’s no wonder the battle has ensued, since feta is considered one of the healthiest cheeses.
Some of “real” feta’s benefits:
- Increases protection against various types of cancer: high amounts of vitamin D and calcium.
- Provides a natural remedy for headaches and migraines
- Serves as a natural treatment for anemia
- Aids in weight management
- Helps digestion
Feta and digestion
In terms of digestion, feta is high in mineral chloride, which is needed by the human body to produce hydrochloric acid (HCL)in the stomach. Efficient HCL levels are needed to effectively break down and digest food.
HCL is the primary gastric acid secreted by our stomachs and its regulation is critical for the maintenance of overall digestive health. Functions include: sterilizing the food we eat to prevent harmful bacteria from entering our GI tract. It triggers the release of enzymes, such as pepsin, which is essential for the digestion of protein. Finally, many minerals are dependent on HCL for optimal assimilation such as magnesium, chromium, copper, iron, and manganese (just to name a few).
Note that feta is a perfectly balanced traditional Greek food. Its high levels of the mineral chloride allow for the optimal digestion of its high levels of protein by triggering the release of the enzyme pepsin, needed for optimal protein digestion.
TIP: Avoid pasteurized feta and purchase raw feta. While pasteurization is promoted as a benefit to help kill possible pathogenic bacteria in our food, unfortunately it kills the good bacteria (probiotics) as well.
No list of traditional Greek probiotic food would be complete without Greek yogurt. This cultured (fermented) superfood packs a powerhouse.
Among its benefits:
- Helps relieve symptoms associated with gastrointestinal conditions including colon cancer, IBS, constipation, diarrhea and lactose intolerance.
- Reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes with frequent consumption
- Improves the gut mucosal immune system, which can help prevent immune mediated diseases, especially in childhood.
It’s no surprise that research about bacteria on our skin and the use of topical probiotics is also expanding. Considering that humans have two microbiomes, one in our gut and one on our skin, it’s only a matter of time before applying yogurt to our faces (just like Yiayia used to recommend!) becomes the norm for optimal skin health.
Made from yogurt, tzatziki has roots in ancient Greece, where it was called “myttiko.” It offers all of the benefits associated with cultured yogurt, along with the many benefits of cucumbers and garlic.
Traditionally-fermented Greek wines
While probiotic counts in fermented wines have not been measured as extensively as they have in fermented foods, some studies have been done. They reveal that probiotics are indeed found in fermented wine! Just one more benefit to think about the next time you drink some of your Greek uncle’s (or your own!) homemade Greek wine.
IMPORTANT: Histamine intolerance is the intolerance towards “normal” levels of histamine in food caused by a decreased activity of the histamine-degrading enzymes diamine oxidase (DAO) or histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT). Individuals that have a histamine intolerance may not be able to tolerate fermented foods. As always, check in with your body during and after consuming a new food.
Mediterranean Diet for optimal health
The Mediterranean (a.k.a. Greek diet) continues to prove, time and again that its synergistic combinations, along with traditional preservation methods, make it the optimal way to eat.
Looking for additional ways to optimize your Greek food? Download my FREE guide! Optimal Greek: A Handful of Traditional Greek Recipes Prepared In Ways That Provide Optimal Nutrition.