Eat This, Not That! for Greek Foods
"Do you want to get Greek tonight?" my fiancé asked me as he opened the refrigerator. "There's nothing in here."
"Sure," I replied. "Get me my usual, please!"
It was more of a formality that he asked me if I wanted to get Greek than anything else. As my other half for nearly seven years, he knows better than to order us Chinese or some other type of greasy fare when our food reserves are running low. To me—and many other health-centric takeout devotees—Greek cuisine is the obvious preferred choice. Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. And not to mention, there are tons of lean meats and veggies on the menu—far more than any pizza or Chinese joint could ever claim.
But follow my lead and tread carefully in Takeout Land, friends. Just because the menu seems to be full of healthy options, it doesn't mean it's not also laden with waist-widening booby traps. Like many Americanized cuisines, there are plenty of dishes that have been tweaked to appease domestic tastes—and have had their health benefits sacrificed in the process.
To help you stick to your diet, we've put together this trusty Greek restaurant guide. From national chains to your local hot spot, here's how you can find nutritional peace from the Middle East.
DIPS & APPS
Eat This: Tabbouleh
Made with chopped parsley, tomatoes, bulgur (a grain that contains 8 grams of fiber per cooked cup), olive oil, and lemon juice, this popular app gets our unwavering stamp of approval.
Not That!: Falafel
Have a falafel; just don't have too many, since the dish is essentially a ball of ground chickpeas that's been deep-fried in cheap oil. Some restaurants pan-fry them in heart-healthy olive oil, which will make the dish a touch lighter. If that's what your local joint does, this means you can get away with eating two or three instead of just one. But if you're going to indulge in any app that been dunked in oil, be sure to split the dish and opt for a lighter entreé.
Eat This: Hummus
Hummus has become one of the hottest health foods in the last few years, but interestingly enough, it's not actually of Greek origin like many people assume. "Although hummus is served at some American-Greek restaurants, it's not actually a Greek dish. It's Middle Eastern," clarifies Elena Paravantes, RD, Mediterranean diet consultant and founder of OliveTomato.com. "But hummus is a healthy pick. It's plant-based, and a great source of fiber and protein," she continues. "However, that doesn't change the fact that it's a concentrated source of calories, so it's best to share."
Eat This! Tip
Ask for a side of veggie sticks along with your hummus to keep calories to a minimum. A single pita is 165 calories and full of empty carbs.
Not That!: Tirokafteri
Tirokafteri doesn't literally translate to "homemade Velveeta," but it should. "It's basically feta cheese mashed into a cream-like consistency with a bit of olive oil and hot pepper," explains Paravantes. "Since it's cheese in a dip form, it's quite rich in saturated fat, compared to some the vegetable dips made with olive oil."
Eat This: Babaganoush
This tasty, creamy eggplant dip may look like it contains mayo, but it's actually made from eggplant, tahini, and olive oil. Filled with healthy fats and loads of fiber, we're giving this dish the green light.
Not That!: Avgolemono
This lemon-infused chicken soup brings little to the table when it comes to nutrition. And that's because the bulk of it is filled with refined white rice that provides your body with very few benefits. You're better off ordering something else that will at least provide some worthy vitamins or nutrients.
Eat This: Fakes
Paravantes is a big fan of this traditional lentil soup. Considering lentils are stocked with folate, iron, fiber, and protein—which are all essential to general health and weight loss—it's easy to see why. You can't go wrong kicking your meal off with this warming dish.
Not That!: Kolokithokeftedes
We know what you're thinking, "Kolo-what now?!" Kolokithokeftedes is essentially grated zucchini that's breaded, fried, and served with herbs and feta cheese. So basically, it's empty carbs, with lots and lots of fat. There are better ways to hit your daily veggie quota.
Eat This: Gigantes
It's hard to go wrong with baked protein- and fiber-rich lima beans served with tomato sauce.
Eat This: Fattoush
While you may have never heard of it before, most Greek joints serve a fattoush salad. Comprised solely of tossed greens, parsley, cucumber, tomatoes (one of these foods that give you glowing skin, bits of toasted pita, mint, and lemon, it's a tasty, pretty dish you'll feel good about choosing. We suggest pairing it with red wine or balsamic vinegar. Ordering in? Ask for the dressing on the side so your salad doesn't get soggy during delivery.
Not That!: Gyro Salad
If you wouldn't down 16 McDonald's chicken nuggets, you should stay far away from this sinister salad. Five ounces of gyro meat—which is similar to what you'd find in a typical salad—delivers 44 grams of fat, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest. The scary part is that this number shoots up even higher once you factor in the dressing. This is a definite Not That!
Eat This: Greek Salad
"Sometimes, the fattoush salad comes with fried pita bread—not toasted—so my top salad choice would be the Greek salad," says Paravantes. The trick here is to get the dressing on the side. If you don't, you risk 450 calories of oil and spices drowning out your bowl of greens, veggies, olives, and feta. To save even more calories and cut back on the salt, ask for the kitchen to go light on the cheese (or get it on the side).
SANDWICHES & PLATTERS
Not That!: Spanakopita Platter
"Spanakopita is a spinach pie made with a lot of love from butter and oil," says Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN. "When making the delicious filo dough, you brush olive oil mixed with melted butter between each layer. In addition, more olive oil goes into the preparation of the filling. That said, the calories quickly add up. Skip this choice or treat it like a fried food and split it with your dining companions as an indulgent appetizer."
Eat This: Veggie Combo Platter
Falafel, grape leaves, and grilled veggies, oh my! "The veggie combo platter can be a smart order, but you should share it or split it into two servings because the portions tend to be huge. And since there are lots of different fat sources, the platter can become quite caloric," Koszyk tells us. "On the bright side, there are a lot of veggies so you get a ton of antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients. And the fat sources are very heart-healthy."
Not That!: Shawarma & Gyro Pita Sandwich
Though they're marinated differently, when it comes to their nutritional quality, fatty shawarmas and greasy gyros are about the same, Koszyk tells us. Plus, both sandwiches are overloaded with toppings like tzatziki, tahini, and roasted eggplant, so Koszyk suggests skipping these pitas if you're trying to eat healthfully or lose belly fat.
Eat This: Chicken Breast Platter
Grilled chicken breast platters typically come with tzatziki, Greek salad, pita bread, and rice. Since you don't need a double dose of empty carbs, ask if you can swap the rice for something else like grilled veggies or a larger salad. The more veggies, the better! Again, the only downside of this platter is the serving size. Portion out enough for one meal on your plate and promptly put the rest in the fridge for tomorrow.
Not That!: Loukaniko Pita Sandwich
Like most other types of sausage, loukaniko is relatively fatty, serving up about six grams of fat per ounce, cautions Koszyk. "Generally, the sausages are about two ounces each and a sandwich will come with two—so the calories and fat content add up fast. If you're watching your saturated fat intake, skip the loukaniko and stick to the grilled chicken," suggests Koszyk.
Eat This: Yiaourti Me Meli
"The healthiest dessert you'll find at a Greek restaurant is the yiaourti me meli, which is traditional Greek yogurt with a bit of honey and walnuts," Paravantes notes. "Almost all restaurants offer this choice. It's a great source of protein, calcium, antioxidants, and good fats from the walnuts. You also get a bit of sweetness with the honey." According to Paravantes, the only downside is that this dish can be quite large, which makes portion control a challenge.
Eat This: Galaktoboureko
Made with crispy phyllo dough, cream custard, honey, walnuts and cinnamon, this omega-3-packed dessert is a Not That if you're dining solo. However, when split among friends, it's not the worst thing in the world. (The walnuts add a bit of nutrition to offset the sugar.) Along, with baklava, Paravantes gives these nut-filled desserts her stamp of approval—but only if you're sharing.
Drink This: Wine
Well, just not more than a glass or two. Georgetown University researchers have found that the antioxidant resveratrol in red wine could help counteract the muscle-degrading impact of a high fat, high sugar diet. When consumed in moderation, the vibrant elixir has also been found to improve the health of overweight people by helping them burn fat more efficiently. Sounds like a good reason to indulge in a small glass if you ask us!
Not That!: Turkish Coffee
Turkish coffee is usually served with sugar already mixed in, so you don't have control over how sweet it is. Consider it a dessert and don't make it your go-to caffeine choice.