Virgin Olive Oil in the Mediterranean Diet: The Heart-healthy Fat

Dietary doctrines have varied over recent decades, sometimes swinging from one extreme to the next in quick succession. High-protein and high-carbohydrate diets come to mind. Meanwhile, new findings often get published at a staggering pace.

Food thy Medicine

Take, for instance, cardiologist T. Jared Bunch’s recently published paper that looks into other studies between 1957 and 2013, a period of trial-and-error that led to one of the most promising anti-heart disease programs ever constructed: the Mediterranean diet. Before delving into these studies, here’s a primer on the Mediterranean diet.

From Pantelleria to the World

Rich in veggies, herbs, spices, seafood, and fresh premium virgin olive oil, the Mediterranean diet is said to have its roots in Pantelleria, a small island southwest of Sicily. It’s rather amazing how a volcanic island of around 8,000 managed to yield such a bounty of health-giving crops. Locals used volcanic rocks to build terraces upon which they grew their food.

The Studies

In 1974, around 12,900 men were chosen to undertake a reduced-fat diet but fell short of the study’s goals. Researchers concluded that changes in the participants’ fat intake weren’t significant enough to curb mortality rates. However, Bunch wrote that the study uncovered one important detail:

“Perhaps the optimal diet is not about the amount of fat consumed, but the type of fat.”

It soon became clear what must be done. In 1989, an Indian study of more than 400 patients with possible acute myocardial infarction explored the possible effects of not only reducing fat intake but also of diversifying food sources. Such a dietary change paid off as participants who consumed 24 percent less fat and more fruits, nuts, veggies, and fish reported a 13-percent drop in cholesterol levels.

Spanish researchers followed up on these interesting findings in a 2003 study that pitted Mediterranean diet variations (one with more olive oil, another with mixed nuts) against simple low-fat diets. Fats and fatty acids from the Mediterranean diets didn’t vary a lot, although the diet rich in olive oil proved more capable of decreasing cardiovascular mortality than the diet high in nuts. The Spanish study, dubbed as “PREvencion con DIeta MEDiterranean,” remains one of the most successful studies to date.

Conclusion

Healthy eating isn’t just about cutting back on fat but also diversifying one’s food choices. The Mediterranean diet, which consists of herbed and spiced seafood dishes and mixed salads, exemplifies that principle. Aside from olive oil, balsamic gourmet vinegars from Orange County importers like Olive Oil and Beyond, make for excellent additions to any sensible diet.

(Source: “50 Years of Diets to Prevent Heart Disease: Did They Work?” Everyday Health, June 16, 2014)

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