Olive Oil Has Been Used Medicinally In The Mediterranean Diet For Generations
Even indigenous tribes in ancient period realized the importance of diet in maintaining human strength and vitality. The practice of cannibalism can be traced to their primitive belief that by eating stronger adversaries, they would also become strong. The modern scientists acknowledged the connection between Mediterranean diet and natural resistance against various diseases, but no research was undertaken till 1950s to establish any direct link between diet and human health. It was young researcher Ancel Keyes from the University of Minnesota and a team of international researchers, who tried to solve this mystery in 1958. Keyes concluded that a diet containing saturated fat significantly increase the chances of heart-related complications. He observed that low intake of meat and dairy products due to wartime shortages in Europe created a marked decline in heart-related diseases. During his tour to some African and European countries, he realized that the rich people consuming lots of dairy products and fat-laden meat were more prone to higher blood cholesterol levels and associated heart complications in comparison to poor people who could hardly afford regular consumption of these fatty products.
In order to establish his conclusion, Keyes and his colleagues conducted a much larger study involving more than 12,000 people in 40 – 59 age groups from seven countries. The participants from Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Yugoslavia and the United States were enrolled into sixteen study groups during 1958 – 1964. The researchers noted dietary habits, physical activity, blood pressure, and serum cholesterol of the participants in each study group or cohort and analyzed deaths from coronary heart disease at every five-year interval during this 20 year study period. This study established that physical characteristics and lifestyle patterns, particularly the eating habits in each of these groups significantly affected the frequency of heart attacks and strokes in the observed population. After ten years, it was clear that the Greeks were leading with the lowest mortality rates. The observation indicated a marked difference in mortality rates due to heart-related diseases.
With 2B percent of the total population suffering from heart-related problems, the incidence of heart disease was highest among Finnish men. The observation about their eating behavior showed that this group mostly consumed saturated fat like butter and cheese to get almost 3B percent of their daily calorie requirements from fat. This 24 percent of total calorie intake in the form of saturated fat was more than twice an average American eats today! The Japanese cohorts consumed only 9 percent of their calorie requirements from fat (only 3 percent calories from saturated fat). The incidence of heart disease in Japanese group was five percent. Obviously, the Japanese men performed better, but they were far behind the Greek participants with only two percent incidence of heart disease and no deaths at all during this ten-year phase. Surprisingly, Greek men consumed almost equal amount of calories from fat as the Finnish group, but they got most of their calories from unsaturated fat. In comparison to a whopping 24 percent saturated fat intake by Finnish group, Greek participants only consumed B percent calories from saturated fat. Greeks consumed more fats in comparison to the Japanese group, but they still suffered from much lower incidence of heart disease than the Japanese group.
The researchers analyzed the blood cholesterol levels of Greek men to understand why they were less prone to heart disease, despite consuming high amounts of fat. Their serum cholesterol turned out to be the lowest among all the seven cohorts. The study established that low intake of saturated fat promote low serum cholesterol and reduce the incidence of heart-related complications. The findings of this study were confirmed by further studies about the link between saturated fat, cholesterol levels and heart disease. Many studies and clinical trials for prevention and control of heart-related problems established that the incidence of heart disease can be significantly reduced by cutting down the intake of saturated fat. These studies highlighted the importance of the traditional Mediterranean diet in maintaining health and well-being. It has been realized that good use of olive oil in the Mediterranean diet contributes to its low intake of saturated and trans-fat and high amounts of monounsaturated fat. In fact, the Greek men in Ancel’s study got their 50-60 percent calories from whole-grain bread and olive oil. Legumes, fruits and vegetables contributed to the rest of their energy requirements. The eating behavior of the Greeks in this study showed that they consumed very low amounts of milk, cheese and other dairy products. Meat and poultry were limited to only a few times per month. Olive oil was their main source of fat, providing high amounts of monounsaturated fat in their diet. If we look at the diet patterns of an average American at that time, they hardly consumed any significant amount of monounsaturated fat. They mainly consumed saturated fat from meat and poultry along with fruits and vegetables. A high proportion of plant foods in Mediterranean diet also explain the effectiveness of this diet pattern in preventing heart disease. During the Seven Countries Study, the Greeks were consuming more vegetables, two times the amount of fruits and three times the amount of cereals and whole-grain bread in comparison to people in the United States.
Regardless of its health effects, Mediterranean diet and lifestyle evolved out of economic necessity. After World War II, Mediterranean lifestyle and its cuisines had to necessarily link with the abundant local supplies like wheat, wine, seafood, olive oil and other plant based food sources. While the necessities shaped the physical activity and diet patterns of Mediterranean people, the Americans had no reason to cut back their consumption of meat, poultry and high-fat dairy products. In fact, massive industrialization in the United States reduced their physical activity while they continued to enjoy more fat-laden delicacies than ever. On the other hand, people living in the Mediterranean region had to produce their crops without using machinery and the role of processed food remained limited. Traditional Mediterranean diet got based on grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood and nuts. Beans and nuts defined the flavor and texture of cuisines, but it’s the herbs and olive oil that proved like a blessing in transforming their recipes with simple ingredients into exotic dishes that are known across the world for its delectable taste.