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A leading US researcher has discovered one of the healthiest ways to eat involves including olive oil in your diet and following the traditional eating pattern of those countries based around the Mediterranean sea.
Dr Mary Flynn, a leading US researcher, dietician and Associate Professor of Medicine at Miriam Hospital and Brown University has more than 30 years experience and says she believes the Mediterranean diet – or the olive oil diet - is the healthiest way to eat.
Here's why Mary belives the consumption of olive oil is so important.
Can you explain exactly what the Mediterranean diet involves?
Traditionally it was the diet consumed by countries around the Mediterranean sea, prior to about 1960 and it was a vegetable, plant-based diet that used extra virgin olive oil daily.
It also used red wine most days and it used whole grains as opposed to refined grains.
So how much olive oil should we be consuming in our daily diet and what's the best way to integrate that into our eating routine?
The benefits start at about two tablespoons. Most of the research backs this up.
My recommendation is to typically use it mainly for preparing vegetables – so a good way to start is to use one tablespoon of olive oil per cup of vegetables.
The reason it’s good with vegetables is that firstly, it makes vegetables taste better. Also though, the thing that actually makes vegetables healthy and that gives them colour, known as flavonoids - actually need fat for that to be absorbed.
If you’re eating dark coloured vegetables (the healthiest vegetables – good for cancer prevention) without fat, you’re not getting the health benefits as they’re not actually being properly absorbed into your body.
What other research have you done into the Mediterranean diet that’s brought you to the conclusion that it is the best way to eat?
I started by looking at women who had breast cancer and using it for weight loss with them and then looking at improvement and risk factors. At the time, I wasn’t as aware of adulteration of olive oil and was probably at least using some adulterated olive oil and so I did not have as consistent blood changes as I expected. Some of the women saw changes, some didn’t. But they definitely lost more weight when they used my diet and they LIKED it better.
That’s one of the things with weight control: you can lose weight with any diet but what diet can you choose that you can stay on long term? I was very surprised by how many people found my diet easy to use, and they stayed with it, they weren’t hungry and they found it easy to prepare. So it has all the components that make it effective for weight loss.
From that, I did some work with men who had recurrent prostate cancer. The way they’re treated for it, they gain weight and get wider waists. So we used the diet with them to lose weight and I was really surprised by how much the men liked it for weight loss.
Then in the food pantries [studies with lower income earners], that was simply to see if people would save more money on my diet, which they did - but also we noticed a decrease in body weight.
Pasta, meat and cheese are popular in Mediterranean countries; does that mean we should eat lots of those foods too?
If you go to those countries and if you picked up a cookbook which features Mediterranean diet, it probably uses olive oil but not in sufficient amounts. It would also feature poultry, red meat, etc. If you look at the traditional diet though, it was really the poor person's diet which means that there were very little meat products.
A lot of those countries are based around the sea – does that mean seafood is good then?
Seafood is good but again, if you look at the traditional diet, seafood was not every day – and the same with meat. If it was used, it was always more of a condiment in the meal, not the main player. It’s the vegetables and plants that would feature the most heavily.
As well as weight loss, what are some of the other health benefits of following the traditional Mediterranean diet?
If you look at the countries that eat this way, you find decreases in all kinds of chronic diseases. There are decreases in blood pressure, in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers - of the breast, colon and prostate, there’s lower body weight. Then you can also look at the risk factors and see those being lowered also, which in turn changes the disease.
It also is a very inexpensive way to eat. Meat is quite expensive and a lot of people don’t realise it. They have this idea that when they go to the grocery store, they’re used to buying meat first and then planning their meals around it, which is wrong.
So ideally, you should do your vege shopping first and work around that?
Well yes. OR just realise that you don’t need meat for every meal. One of the studies I did, I just asked them not to use meat (meat poultry or seafood) for three meals a week and to use my recipes, and we found an increase [in health benefits] and a decrease in food cost and that was just three main meals.
You mention the importance of having olive oil that’s unadulterated – what’s the difference and what are the benefits?
Most imported olive oil that’s coming into the US and, as I learned, in Australia is labelled extra virgin olive oil, but in the US this isn’t controlled at all. So most of the time you’re actually just getting vegetable oil that’s been labelled as extra virgin.
So if you were to take an imported oil and compare it something local – you could distinctly smell the difference and realise that the imported one is oxidised and is therefore not olive oil. In Australia, we actually have great olive oil that’s very fresh – from a number of places including Cobram estates.
If you’re not getting real olive oil , you’re not getting the real benefits – and there are SO many benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, low glucose, low insulin which improves your blood fat, reduces oxidation and inflammation…the list goes on and on.
So I think it’s really important that people look into it and make sure that they’re really getting real olive oil.
We live in a fast paced modern world- not everyone has time to cook up a Mediterranean plant-based feast for every meal- best advice for eating healthily on the go?
My recipes are really easy: put olive in a pan, add veges, cook it: good to go. Also, when you take meat out of the equation that reduces preparation and cooking time significantly so that’s a big benefit of foregoing meat.
My other recommendation is that you take a half a cup of olive oil and just put it in a pan with a whole bunch of vegetables when you have the time, then divide that up into freezer bags to use for lunches throughout the week.