The traditional Mediterranean Diet stands out as one of the healthiest in the world. In scientific studies it has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (stroke and heart disease), several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
When it comes to weight control the Mediterranean Diet also provides solid evidence in support of eating good fats. Extra virgin olive oil is a dietary staple, along with plentiful amounts of nuts, seeds, avocado and omega-3 rich seafood. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) this relatively high fat intake the diet has been associated with weight loss and, importantly, reduced deposition of fat around the middle – the most dangerous fat for health.
The diet has been associated with weight loss and, importantly, reduced deposition of fat around the middle
Aside from the types of fat, there are many other aspects that are thought to be contributing to these numerous health benefits.
The diet is characterised by plentiful vegetables, herbs and spices, fruit, legumes and wholegrains. They eat seafood, poultry and eggs regularly, but have red meat less often. They enjoy moderate amounts of dairy foods, principally as cheese and yoghurt. Bread is a staple food, but rather than slathering it in butter, they dip it in extra virgin olive oil. They enjoy a glass of wine, but don’t binge drink. And they place importance on mealtimes, taking time out of the day to sit at the table and enjoy the meal with family or friends.
Bread is a staple food, but rather than slathering it in butter, they dip it in extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is used ubiquitously and undoubtedly many of the health benefits of the diet come from this. Extra virgin olive oil is totally different to the refined oils that dominate the supermarket shelves.
So what is it about extra virgin olive oil that makes it so special?
The principle fat present is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Aside from the benefits already outlined for monounsaturated fats, a compound produced in the gut when we digest oleic acid plays a role in triggering satiety. In turn this reduces appetite and helps you to eat less for the rest of the day.
A compound produced in the gut when we digest oleic acid plays a role in triggering satiety
European studies have shown that including extra virgin olive oil in your diet can reduce blood pressure, increase HDL-cholesterol, reduce oxidised (damaged) LDL-cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, reduce inflammation and improve blood glucose control.
These effects are not just due to the type of fat. Extra virgin olive oil is a rich source of numerous phytochemicals, including antioxidants, that play a role in protecting body cells from damage. For example, squalene, a phytochemical uniquely high in extra virgin olive oil, concentrates in the skin where it plays a role in protecting skin cells from sun damage. This is thought to explain why the incidence of skin cancer is lower in the Mediterranean region.
Squalene, a phytochemical uniquely high in extra virgin olive oil, concentrates in the skin where it plays a role in protecting skin cells from sun damage
The peppery taste of extra virgin olive oil comes from the presence of a phytochemical called oleocanthal. This has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, working in much the same way as a low dose of ibuprofen, making it helpful in managing inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis. Oleocanthal has also been shown to protect neurons in the brain and this may be the mechanism by which extra virgin olive oil rich diets reduce the risk of brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Oleocanthal has also been shown to protect neurons in the brain
One myth that needs to be busted once and for all regards cooking. You can, and indeed should, cook with extra virgin olive oil. The monounsaturated fats are very stable, plus the antioxidants present protect the fats from damage. In fact, the latest evidence shows that cooking veggies in extra virgin olive oil – as they do traditionally in the Mediterranean Diet – raises the numbers of total antioxidants present. It seems that the oil adds its own antioxidants, but also increases the numbers released and absorbed from the veggies.
You can, and indeed should, cook with extra virgin olive oil
You can see that the Mediterranean Diet is very similar to what we do on Get Lean and of course that’s no accident. We can all benefit and learn from their way of eating and adopt the parts that work for us. Using the Dr Joanna Plate as your template for meals will help you to put into place many of these aspects including the generous selection of veggies, using smart carbs like legumes more and making extra virgin olive oil your hero fat. Thankfully it’s also a pretty delicious way to get lean!