Nutrition Action Healthletter
Center for Science in the Public InterestNovember 2000 — U.S. Edition 
Vegetables, grains, olives, grapes.  For centuries, those staples have been the essence of traditional Greek cooking...

Greek Food: a Mediterranean Mixed Bag

Americans love to eat out. And when it comes to ethnic cuisine, what the industry calls “The Big Three”—Italian, Mexican, and Chinese—are the runaway favorites. In fact, spaghetti, tacos, and egg rolls are so familiar that many people no longer think of them as any less American than a burger and fries.

   But we also have a growing interest in other ethnic foods. And comfortably ensconced in the second tier of popularity is Greek restaurant fare. In a 1999 survey by the National Restaurant Association, more than half of the respondents said that they eat Greek food occasionally or frequently.

   Most people know that burgers, fries, nachos, and doughnuts are unhealthy. But what about gyros, spanakopita, souvlaki, and baklava? Those and other Greek specialties are popping up not only in sit-down restaurants, but in mall eateries, airports, and other locations. Yet as ethnic foods grow in popularity, it’s not always easy to spot the menu items that may make a beeline to your waistline or heart.

   Some “healthy” restaurant guides endorse (or disparage) restaurant foods based on looking at recipes from cookbooks. But recipes can’t tell you what a typical restaurant ladles out to its customers. Only laboratory analyses—like the ones we conducted for this article—can supply reliable numbers. And while our results can’t tell you exactly what’s served in the Greek restaurant in your neighborhood, they do offer a ballpark estimate of what a typical dish might contain.

   And those estimates are a mixed bag. A few dishes—like chicken, lamb, or pork souvlaki—are as healthy as the healthiest meals at Italian, Chinese, or typical American restaurants. Others make you wonder whether “Greece” should be spelled “Grease.” A typical entré of stuffed grape leaves or spinach pie, for example, has more artery-clogging fat than a Big Mac. A gyro or an order of moussaka has twice as much.

   Why haven’t those dishes harmed the Greeks? Over the centuries, their diets consisted largely of vegetables, grains, and olive oil, with just a smattering of seafood, meat, and cheese. In the landmark Seven Countries study, which began in 1947, the men from the Greek island of Crete, who had a remarkably low rate of heart disease, got only eight percent of their calories from saturated fat. They weren’t sitting down to a plate of spanakopita every day. (They were barely sitting down, period. They were far more active than Americans—or Greeks, for that matter—are today.)

   But to the average American, who can have pizza on Monday and a beef burrito or an order of moo shu pork on Tuesday, a portion of moussaka is another story. We can dine on a different artery-clogging cuisine every day. And our arteries and bellies show it.

How We Got Our NumbersDolmades
Chicken SouvlakiGyro
Lamb or Pork SouvlakiMoussaka
Greek Salad
How We Got Our Numbers

   We bought dinner-sized takeout portions of six popular main dishes, one sandwich, one side dish, and one dessert at nine Greek restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. We made a composite sample for each dish (by blending together equal portions of each restaurant’s chicken souvlaki, for example) and sent the composites to an independent laboratory to be analyzed for calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and (for baklava) sugar.

   Here’s what we found, listed from least artery-clogging fat (saturated plus trans) to most, with dessert (baklava) at the end.

Chicken Souvlaki

Whether it’s called souvlaki in Greece or shish kebob in the Middle East, it’s usually the same: marinated chicken (or lamb, beef, or pork) threaded on a skewer (with vegetables), then broiled or grilled and served over rice. Of the main dishes we tested, it’s clearly the winner.

   A typical order of chicken kebobs will run you only 260 calories, eight grams of fat (two of them saturated plus trans), and 370 milligrams of sodium. What’s more, the skewers often yield about two-thirds of a cup of vegetables, not counting the usual side dishes like green beans or carrots.

   When you add rice, the numbers climb to just 500 calories and 14 grams of fat (five of them saturated plus trans)—about the same as a grilled chicken breast plus vegetables and a baked potato. For a restaurant meal, that’s hard to beat (though 1,050 mg of sodium is nothing to boast about).

To make it better: Until someone invents a salt vacuum, you can’t.

Lamb or Pork Souvlaki

If you’re looking for red meat, you can’t beat kebobs. On the skewers you’ll find only 310 calories and 11 grams of fat (four of them saturated plus trans). Add rice and the numbers rise to 550 calories, 18 grams of fat (seven of them saturated plus trans), and an unfortunate 1,230 mg of sodium.

   Restaurant meals with red meat just don’t get any leaner. Only a handful of the meat dishes we’ve tested from other types of restaurants even come close: spaghetti with meat sauce (but not meatballs), a trimmed sirloin steak plus salad and baked potato, and pot roast with vegetables, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

To make it better: Sodium aside, there’s no need to.


The spanakopita capital of Greece is the northwestern city of Epirus, where greens were often all people had to eat, according to The Food and Wine of Greece (St. Martin’s Press, 1990). That’s not the case in America.

   Spanakopita (spinach pie)—layers of paper-thin phyllo dough that have been slathered with butter and filled with a good dose of feta cheese, oil, and egg—isn’t exactly what American blood vessels and backsides need. A modest, entrée-sized serving of spanakopita is as bad as a Burger King Bacon Cheeseburger.

   The pastry may be light and flaky, but after 410 calories and 24 grams of fat (12 of them saturated plus trans), you may feel dull and leaden. And that’s without the potatoes, rice, or vegetables that most restaurants offer on the side.

   Spinach is loaded with vitamins and phytochemicals, but don’t use it as an excuse to order this splurge.

To make it better: Split it with someone who’s ordering souvlaki, and ask for extra vegetables on the side.

Greek Salad

It hurts to criticize a salad. They’re largely vegetables, after all—those low-calorie, low-fat, diverse and appealing packages of phytochemicals, fiber, and vitamins that people should eat more often.

   (We only ordered Greek salads that included lettuce. Many restaurants offer “taverna” or “village” salads, which are made without lettuce. Their numbers may differ from those in our chart.)

   Naturally, you’d expect a Greek salad to be heavy on the olive oil, but that’s unsaturated fat—not low in calories, but not an invitation to the coronary care unit, either.

   The bad news: Of the 30 grams of fat in a typical entrée-sized Greek salad, 12 are saturated plus trans, more than half a day’s worth...about the same as a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The good news: You can cut the damaging fat by removing some of the feta cheese.

   Unlike Quarter Pounders, Greek salads are as variable as the chefs who grab a handful of cheese, crumble it over the plate, and move on to the next dish. On average, the salads we bought had 41/2 tablespoons (11/2 ounces) of feta, but some had just 11/2 tablespoons, while others had eight.

   Cutting the feta would also cut the sodium down from the 1,060 mg we found. But olives, dressing, and pepperoncini (pickled hot peppers) also add salt.

To make it better: Ask for the cheese and the dressing on the side and use just a tablespoon or two of each.


Dolmades are the Greek equivalent of stuffed cabbage. The grape leaves are filled with either rice (more typical when it’s served cold as an appetizer, or meze) or meat and rice (more typical when it’s served as an entrée). They’re often drizzled with an avgolemono (egg-and-lemon) sauce. (We analyzed only entrée-sized portions of meat-and-rice dolmades.)

   Any time you’re talking ground beef or lamb, you’re talking saturated fat. You can’t see it...and you can’t trim it away. With the sauce, a typical serving of four grape leaves harbors 540 calories and 32 grams of fat, 15 of them saturated plus trans...without the rice, potatoes, or vegetables that often comes on the side.

   While the filling and sauce supply the fat, the leaves probably account for most of the salt. “Unless the restaurant has a grapevine in its backyard, its grape leaves are probably from a can or a jar,” notes The Restaurant Lover’s Companion (Addison-Wesley, 1995). And that may mean that they’ve been soaking in (salty) brine. Even if the restaurants rinse the leaves before using them, the brine could explain why the dish’s sodium hits 1,470 mg.

To make it better: You’ll get less sat fat if you get your leaves stuffed only with rice.


In 1995, Nutrition Action made headlines when we reported that a tuna salad sandwich with mayonnaise on the bread has more saturated fat than a Big Mac...and more total fat than two. News flash: A gyro makes that tuna salad sandwich look good.

   A gyro (“YEAR-oh”) is a pita bread sandwich stuffed with meat, a quarter cup of tzatziki (a yogurt, cucumber, oil, and garlic sauce), about two-thirds of a cup of vegetables (typically lettuce, tomato, and onion), and (sometimes) a sprinkling of feta cheese. Judging by what we found when we picked each sandwich apart, the meat is ground zero for blame.

   To make a gyro, restaurants put a molded mixture of compressed, seasoned beef, lamb, bread crumbs, and onions on a vertical spit and roast it. Then they carve off thin slices for the sandwich. Thin perhaps, but far from lean or skimpy.

   We found a typical five ounces of meat per sandwich, but one restaurant served as little as two ounces, while two of the three Chicago eateries piled on at least ten ounces.

   All told, this relatively recent addition to Greek cuisine supplies a third of a day’s calories (760), two-thirds of a day’s total fat (44 grams), and an entire day’s saturated plus trans fat (20 grams) and sodium (2,390 milligrams). It’s something akin to a 16-ounce trimmed T-bone steak.

To make it better: Don’t bother. See if you can get a souvlaki sandwich, which is made with grilled or broiled chunks of leaner meat.


Anyone who knows moussaka—a casserole that layers fatty ground beef or lamb with fatty (usually) fried eggplant and douses them both with fatty béchamel sauce (butter, milk, and egg yolks)—knows that it’s anything but spa food. But they might not guess 830 calories and 48 grams of fat, either. And that’s without typical side dishes like rice, potatoes, or vegetables.

   A plate of moussaka leaves your arteries choking on 25 grams of heart-threatening fat. That’s more than a day’s worth. And don’t forget about your blood pressure. Each serving has 2,010 milligrams of sodium, just short of your 2,400-mg daily limit.

To make it better: Split a portion with a friend...or two. Ask for extra vegetables and rice.


One glance at a baklava recipe and your arteries may start to quake. Each ultra-thin layer of phyllo dough is brushed with melted butter and layered with a mixture of chopped nuts and spices. Then it’s baked and drenched with syrup made of honey, sugar, and lemon juice. What pastry could possibly be worse?

A croissant, Cinnabon, scone, or danish, for starters. All have two to four times more saturated fat than a typical portion of baklava. All that brushing apparently delivers just two teaspoons of butter (five grams of artery-clogging fat).

That’s not to say that baklava is a health food. The calories hit 550 (in the same league as most other pastries) and the fat hits 21 grams. Even the sodium—620 mg—is a mouthful. And don’t forget the eight teaspoons of sugar. Still, many other restaurant desserts are far worse.

To make it better: Share it with a friend.

The testing for this article was coordinated by Ingrid VanTuinen and Heather Jones. Sheryl Bedno and Cyndi Jones helped purchase the food.


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