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October 24, 2000

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Greek Food: A Mediterranean Mixed Bag

  Greek Restaurant Food: “From Fab to Fat”
Souvlaki Gets “Thumbs Up” — Moussaka, Gyro Get “Thumbs Down”

WASHINGTON - The first-ever study of popular dishes from Greek restaurants shows that some entrées are among the most healthful foods available at any restaurant, while others are as bad for your heart as two McDonald’s Big Macs. Findings from the study are reported in the November issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

     “The good news is that the chicken, lamb, or pork souvlaki (kebobs) are great choices — fairly low in fat and rich in vegetables,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley, who conducted the study. “The heart-throbbingly bad news is the fat-filled moussaka and gyro.”

     Among CSPI’s key findings:

  • Chicken, lamb, and pork souvlaki are lower-fat main dishes that provide a decent serving of grilled vegetables. A typical order of chicken souvlaki has just 260 calories and eight grams of fat. Lamb or pork skewers have 310 calories and 11 grams of fat.
  • An entrée-sized Greek salad contains 30 grams of fat, including more than half-a-day’s worth of saturated and trans fat (from the feta cheese). That’s the fat equivalent of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
  • The spanakopita (spinach pie) entrée contains some vitamin-packed spinach, but it also has about as much fat as a Burger King Bacon Cheeseburger — 24 grams of fat, 12 of them the artery-clogging type (saturated plus trans).
  • An entrée-size serving of dolmades (grape leaves filled with meat and rice) provides 540 calories and 32 grams of fat, 15 of them saturated plus trans.
  • Moussaka was the least healthful of the seven entrées tested. The fatty ground beef or lamb, fried eggplant, and a sauce made from butter, milk, and egg yolks provides more than a day’s worth — 25 grams — of heart-threatening fat. One serving also provides nearly a day’s worth of sodium.
  • The gyro is a pita-bread sandwich filled with a molded mixture of seasoned beef and lamb roasted on a vertical spit. The five ounces of meat in a typical sandwich delivers 44 grams of fat, including a whole day’s worth of artery-clogging fat (20 grams). The 760-calorie sandwich also provides about an entire day’s worth of sodium.

     “The gyro is a Trojan horse stuffed with saturated fat and salt,” CSPI’s Hurley said. “It ought to be called ‘sausage on a spit.’ It’s one of the worst sandwiches we’ve ever seen. Our advice is skip the gyro and moussaka and head straight for the kebobs.”

     “Traditional Greek diets are among the healthiest you can get,” said Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I wish that typical Greek restaurants in the United States would cut back on the meat and butter.”

     “CSPI’s study is on target,” said Elaine Gavalas, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and New York-based author of Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking (Penguin Putnam/Avery, 1998). “Over the centuries, the Greek diet consisted largely of vegetables, grains, fish, and olive oil, with small amounts of meat and cheese — a healthy diet by any standards,” continued Gavalas, whose family is from Greece. “What you find in many Greek restaurants in the U.S. today is a far cry from the traditional rural diet of Greece — and far less healthful.”

     To conduct its study, CSPI bought dinner-sized take-out portions of six popular main dishes, one sandwich, one side dish, and one dessert at nine mid-priced Greek restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. The group then made a composite sample of each dish 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.


(These main dishes are listed from best to worst — from the least to most artery-clogging fat )

Calories Total
Fat (g)
Fat (g)

(saturated plus trans)
Sodium (mg)
Main Dishes
Chicken Souvlaki (kebob) (7 oz.)26082370
Lamb or Pork Souvlaki (kebob) (8 oz.)310114550
Chicken Souvlaki with rice (13 oz.)5001451,050
Spanakopita (spinach pie) (8 oz.)4102412730
Greek Salad (3½ cups) with dressing39030121,060
Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) (4 pieces—12 oz.)54032151,470
Moussaka (ground beef & eggplant casserole) (12 oz.)83048252,010
Side Dishes
Greek Rice (1½ cups)24073680

Calories Total
Fat (g)
Fat (g)

plus trans)
Sugars (g)
Baklava (honey & nut pastry) (5 oz.) 550 21 5 32