Our next installment in a series of Q&A with American-born Greeks living in Greece. Chicago native Elena Paravantes shares her story.
Meet Elena Paravantes
Elena Paravantes is a Chicago-born Greek living in Athens. She is a dietitian and blogger at olivetomato.com, promoting healthy eating the Mediterranean way. She tells her story as a Greek-American living in Greece.
Maria A. Karamitsos: You’re originally from Chicago. Where did you grow up?
Elena Paravantes: I was born in Chicago and grew up in south suburban Oak Lawn, until I was 12.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? Why?
EP: My parents always wanted to move back to Greece, and so we did. After I graduated from high school in Greece, I moved back to Chicago for college and work and came back to Greece again as an adult 15 years ago, to try out life here.
MAK: Where do you live?
EP: In a northern suburb in Athens.
MAK: What inspired you to become a dietitian?
EP: Well, my first degree is in Psychology and I was always interested in ways one can help somebody improve themselves. This lead to the study of nutrition and helping people improve their relationship with food and how food can be such an effective tool for health as well.
MAK: How is being a dietitian in the US different from Greece? Do people in Greece see dietitians?
EP: Yes, Greece has many dietitians, however as it is a fairly new profession here, it is a bit misunderstood. Most Greek dietitians are mainly in private practice and are usually visited for weight loss. In the US, dietitians hold a variety of jobs in government, healthcare, food industry, media, academia and there is also what we call Medical Nutrition Therapy, where dietitians/nutritionists deal with patients that have medical issues such as heart disease, diabetes etc. and prescribe specific diets for those conditions.
MAK: Talk briefly about your professional accomplishments. Which are most rewarding?
EP: In terms of “accomplishments”, the work I’m doing promoting the Mediterranean-Greek diet has been extremely rewarding. Since its beginnings, the mission of olivetomato.com is the promotion of the Mediterranean Diet, Greek Diet, Greek food and Greek food products through scientifically-based articles as well as recipes, to readers from around the world. My work has garnered the interest of consumers, non-profit organizations, nutrition professionals, journalists, academics and food and beverage companies. This is an issue close to my heart personally and professionally, as this is the diet I grew up on, which just so happens to have the most research supporting its health benefits, making it one of the healthiest eating patterns in the world.
My work with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association) has provided a great sense of accomplishment. I was elected President of International Affiliate of the Academy and served on the Board of Directors for many years. This experience propelled me into the international nutrition community. I’m former Delegate for the European Federation of the Associations of Dietitians and the International Confederation of Dietetic Associations. For my work I was awarded Outstanding Dietitian of the Year. I have to say that being acknowledged by your peers is very fulfilling.
I also established the Nutrition Department at the American College of Greece and taught the first-ever nutrition course at the school. I feel nutrition is such an important aspect of our life and should start early on.
MAK: Tell us about some of the challenge you face in today’s Greece, personally and professionally.
EP: Well, obviously businesses and services that were thriving a few years ago, today have closed and that has affected a large percentage of the population directly or indirectly. Of course nothing is constant and that’s why probably the most important skill a professional can have is being able to adapt. That’s key in surviving anywhere. I don’t think I can single out one challenge, as challenges are everywhere. I think it’s part of life whether you live in Greece or any other part of the world. As a person who has lived in 2 countries and has 2 cultures, it can often be a challenge to fit in, whether that’s Greece or the U.S.
MAK: You blog. Are you considering writing a cookbook?
EP: I have been a food and nutrition writer and journalist for 15 years. Blogging is a medium that can reach out to the reader in a more effective way. I’m considering a book but more so looking into the future to other forms of media.
MAK: What’s one tip for everyone on how to incorporate the Mediterranean way of eating?
EP: Eat more vegetables as a main course. The Greek diet is almost a vegetarian diet for the most part. Greeks consume the most vegetables per person in the world, our secret are the lathera dishes. So have 2-3 lathera dishes cooked with good olive oil and you will automatically upgrade your diet.
MAK: Do you ever visit the US?
EP: Usually twice a year.
MAK: The current economic climate in Greece is challenging, to say the least. Why do you stay? Why is it important to you?
EP: I feel that Greece has always been challenging, but also exciting. I do like living in Greece, the spirit, the liveliness, the land, the sea. It is special to know that you are living in the same place your ancestors were living. Having said that, almost my whole family lives here, so that also plays an important role in staying in Greece.
MAK: In spite of the challenges, why is it important for people to stay in Greece?
EP: We need to be aware that no one wants to leave their home.Not everyone has a choice to leave Greece even if they wanted to. Relocating isn’t as easy as it sounds. One of the characteristics of Greeks is resilience; we have seen that over and over again through history. Another characteristic is strong family ties which are extremely important in the current situation. However, there are many highly educated, bright Greeks who either do not have a job or work in low paid unskilled positions. These individuals feel that they can find better jobs by moving to another country. In many cases this is true, but in some not so, even with an education, with no real experience good jobs aren’t easy to find. I think the crisis has spurred a wave of creativity and entrepreneurship in Greeks, and those who stay are trying to make the best of it by showcasing Greece.
Thank you to Elena Paravantes for sharing her insights.