Myth: The Mediterranean diet is healthy because of the olive oil.
Fact: The Mediterranean diet is healthy because it contains of variety of protective foods.
Everybody has heard good things about the Mediterranean diet. Typically we hear it’s good for the heart, and this is true as evidenced by the lower rates of heart disease experienced in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. However most people when asked what’s healthy about it almost always say olive oil. This is an oversimplification because the traditional Mediterranean diet – predominantly plant food based – contains a bounty of foods with known protective effects: vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, herbs and spices, fish and small servings of alcohol and red meat. The mechanism of protection is still not fully understood, and there are likely to be many different protective effects offered by different foods. And there are non-diet factors. For many traditional communities around the Mediterranean, their lives are simpler, more active and religion is central to everyday life. One could postulate that religion is crucial to the health benefits of Mediterranean diet!
Why the question ‘what’s healthy about the Mediterranean diet?’ is important, is because foods of the Mediterranean are not universally available or liked. I’ve met people who just don’t like the taste of olive oil. While olive oil is a healthy choice, it may actually have a neutral effect on heart health by displacing bad fats rather than actively protecting by itself. Olive oil is primarily monounsaturated and the Heart Foundation Australia’s evidence-based position on monounsaturated fats is “there is little evidence that mono-unsaturated fat has an independent effect on coronary endpoints”. In simple terms, this means don’t rely on mono-unsaturated fats alone to prevent a heart attack. Another component of olive oil often mentioned is the antioxidants (polyphenolic compounds), particularly high in extra-virgin olive oil. These are likely to be beneficial, however not unique to olive oil. Thousands of phytochemicals exist across all plant foods.
An even better result may be achieved with a modified Mediterranean diet using sunflower or canola oil. This is because polyunsaturated fats have greater cholesterol lowering effects, and because of the known benefits of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. This idea of a Mediterranean-style diet using different oil – namely canola oil and margarine – yielded spectacular results in the famous Lyon Heart Study. This seminal study showed an impressive 76% reduction in risk of death or major coronary events (e.g. heart attack, stroke etc) in patients who had previously had a heart attack (and thus at high risk) after following a modified Mediterranean diet for 27 months. While a Mediterranean diet with olive oil attracts passionate supporters, it’s not the only cardio-protective diet.
If you want to eat a healthy diet, then try to take all the leaves out of the Mediterranean diet book rather than just the page on olive oil or you’re bound to come up short on benefits. A heart-healthy diet is a whole rather than one or two parts, and can be adapted to suit individual and cultural preferences.
If you’d like to learn more about heart-friendly foods and how you can combine them in ways to suit you, check out Nicole’s books at http://www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au/