Olive Oil and the Mediterranean Diet

We’ve learned through generations of wise cooks that oil is a fantastic liquid that facilitates the process of turning raw food into edible food.  More recent generations of scientists, nutritionists, and doctors have taught us that lowering the fat in our diet is likely to prolong our life spans and narrow our waistlines.  Most people seem to understand this concept, and have taken efforts – sometimes great efforts – to drastically lower fat intake.  But those efforts can be made even more effective with one more tweak.

Somehow OIL has survived this low-fat generation, and in many ways has even come out on top.  Up through the 1970’s, there was cooking oil and there was motor oil.  In the 80’s, there were different kinds of cooking oil – canola, vegetable, corn, sunflower, all differing in popularity.  Their benefits and differences were promoted heavily and consumers began choosing different cooking oils for various reasons based on the trusted advice of the media and government.

And then came olive oil (insert glorious hallelujah chorus and a serious roll of the eyes), thanks to the raging popularity of the Mediterranean Diet whereby Americans aim to emulate the healthy lifestyle of those in Southern Italy and Greece.  The Diet is as follows:  High consumption of vegetables and fruit, high consumption of unrefined cereals (read whole grains), and high consumption of legumes.  It also allows for moderate consumption of fish, and low consumption of dairy, eggs, poultry, and little to no red meat.  Moderate red wine is fine, and olive oil is primarily used for cooking.  To clarify, it emphasizes regular physical activity, abundant plant foods, fresh fruit instead of dessert, and olive oil as the principal source of fat.  (as opposed to meat and dairy being principal sources of fat).

What did we really take from this?  Italian food is healthy.  Olive oil, pasta, and wine are healthy.  Fish is the best meat.  If some is good, more must be better.

Like in many circumstances of nutritional advice, we not only heard what we wanted to hear, we completely missed the boat.  What was popularized in the Mediterranean diet was a plant based diet!  Loads of vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit!  Yes, they do consume animal products as well, but in minuscule amounts compared to the Western Diet.  It really makes one wonder where we’d be today if we had  heard the correct message back in 1945 when the diet was first publicized, or even in the 90’s when it became trendy.

Instead, we’ve embraced olive oil as a heart healthy food.  We dip our bread in it, splash it liberally over pasta and salads, and cook everything in it.  But wait, if low fat is heart healthy, how in the world is something that’s 100% fat heart healthy?

Yes, olive oil is 100% fat.  All oils are 100% fat.  The supposed heart health benefits of olive oil were described after studies compared diets high in olive oil to diets high in another kind of oil.  While it may have had some benefits over the other oil, the decision to call it ‘heart healthy’  was a HUGE disservice to our population.

Olive oil contains 120 calories per tablespoon, and pound for pound it contains more calories than butter.  It provides almost no nutritional value.  Olives are whole foods.  Olive oil is a highly processed liquid that gives you mega calories with no benefit.  Oh, and by the way, you’re not only building up your waistline, you’re raising your risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

Still want to emulate the Mediterranean people?  I’m all for that!  Eat loads of vegetables, legumes, whole grain, and fruit.  I have no problem whatsoever with red wine in moderation.  Just ditch the oil and live better without it!

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