I’m always sure to have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil in my cupboard. I’m such a generous drizzler. I have an unnatural obsession with olives and I pretty much eat them every day. The Mediterranean diet always fascinated me so when I was given the chance to speak to Dr Simon Poole and share our passion for this incredible way of life, I jumped at it.
Dr Simon Poole MBBS DRCOG is a Cambridge-based medical doctor, author, broadcaster, commentator and is an internationally renowned authority on the science and application of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. So I’d say he’s pretty much the best human to give us his top 10 reasons why us old broads should look at adopting this way of eating.
1. Managing the Menopause
As a practicing doctor, I see many women in their late forties and early fifties with very troublesome perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms. Hot flushes and night sweats, so-called vasomotor symptoms, can be especially intrusive. It has been known for some time that diet can be effective in significantly lessening some of these symptoms which can have a dramatic benefit to quality of life during the hormonal changes of the menopause.
Whilst individual foods or supplements have been promoted for these effects, the most convincing evidence is that the Mediterranean diet is the best nutritional prescription for the challenges of the menopause. One particular prospective study of 6000 women in Australia showed that those consuming a Mediterranean diet of vegetables, pasta, fruit and red wine were twenty percent less likely to have significant vasomotor symptoms, whilst those with a high sugar, “western” style diet were 23% more likely to be affected.
2. Preventing Heart Disease and Stroke
As we reach our forties and beyond, it is even more important to embrace a lifestyle which is enjoyable as well as healthy. Maintaining good physical health can be a challenge, but it is possible to significantly reduce the odds of heart disease and stroke by making some relatively simple changes to our diet.
The prestigious annual US News Report expert scientific committee convened to assess the merits of different diets has, for the fifth year running, awarded that accolade to the Mediterranean diet. This is because of the body of evidence which supports its ability to protect us from the commonest of medical conditions. For example, the Predimed Study – a large randomised controlled trial based in Spain showed that participants on the Mediterranean diet were thirty percent less likely to develop heart disease, even showing by ultrasound that potentially dangerous cholesterol plaques in the carotid arteries of many people in the trial regressed, thereby reducing the risk of stroke.
A separate study conducted by the University Bordeaux showed an extraordinary seventy eight percent reduced relative risk of stroke in people regularly consuming extra virgin olive oil, perhaps the single most important ingredient in the diet.
3. Achieving Weight Goals and Avoiding Diabetes
There are numerous diets promoted for weight loss, many of them difficult to sustain for a long period of time, some restrictive and frankly unpleasant. Research has shown that calorie counting is less effective than choosing the right types of healthy fats and low GI carbohydrates and that is important that a diet results in consistent travel towards a healthy weight and is enjoyable and therefore more able to be sustained in the long term.
The Mediterranean diet performs as well as most other diets for weight loss and also reduces the risk of developing diabetes by as much as forty to sixty percent. This is based on a number of beneficial effects of the diet – from the wholegrain carbohydrates and low levels of processed foods with added sugars, to the effects of extra virgin olive oil directly increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing sugar spikes by slowing the absorption of carbohydrate meals. In the Mediterranean, bread and pasta is almost always combined with extra virgin oil, adding great flavour, increasing satiety and a feeling of fullness at the same time as ensuring a slow and low glycaemic rise.
4. Reducing the Risk of Dementia
Our generation has seen a dramatic increase in dementia affecting the over sixties and a failure to find medications to reduce its devastating consequences. Yet in the traditional lands of the Mediterranean – the mountains of Greek islands and the harbours on Italian coastlines, there are very low rates of dementia. This is thought to be due to the diet and lifestyle and perhaps in particular because the colourful vegetables, herbs and spices and ubiquitous extra virgin olive oil are so rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, protecting our bodies, including our brains, from harm.
A study from Thessaloniki University in Greece showed that a tablespoon of high polyphenol extra virgin olive oil, instantly recognisable by its beautiful fruity, deliciously bitter and peppery flavours, reduced progression of disease in people with early dementia in comparison with those given low polyphenol, poor quality olive oil.
5. Protection from Breast cancer
It is said that a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in western societies is as much as one in seven. These are uncomfortable odds, yet we see much lower rates across the countries which follow the traditional Mediterranean Diet. The researchers who led the Predimed study found a reduced risk of breast cancer of sixty percent in those participants on the Mediterranean diet. This may also be due to the presence of foods rich in antioxidants as well as a reduction in consumption of processed foods, which we know increase the likelihood of developing cancers.
6. Improving Wellbeing
It is good to talk about a diet which reduces the risk of diseases and which therefore increases the chances of healthy aging with a good quality of life, but there is an even more positive effect of the Mediterranean diet for people who adopt this pattern of eating at any age. Wellbeing is a concept which is difficult to define and even more elusive to measure scientifically.
Researchers at the university of Granada however, not only found lower levels of depression in university students scoring high adherence to a Mediterranean Diet, but their wellbeing, sense of energy, and social functioning parameters were also much higher. Maintaining good mental health is important for us all at any age, and especially key for children passing through vulnerable stages of adolescence and leaving home for university.
7. The Joy of Food Preparation
Women have traditionally been at the centre of home making and food preparation for the family, although we must be careful not to reinforce gender stereotypes. That said, preparing delicious Mediterranean meals from scratch is such fun and so rewarding that it might be difficult to keep other family members out of the kitchen. On a serious note, learning to cook Mediterranean style together with children at the weekend is a wonderful experience.
8. A Diet that is Value for Money
There is a perception that the Mediterranean diet is more expensive than a standard, more processed western diet. The reality is a bit more complicated than that. Although supermarkets often offer price reductions on processed foods, fresh seasonal vegetables and wholegrains can be inexpensive and a very affordable alternative.
A good quality extra virgin olive oil is not an industrial product and its production costs cannot be compared with cheap refined oils. But the health benefits are clear to see. Often buying in larger quantities can reduce the price per litre and make regular consumption of fresh extra virgin olive oil much easier to afford. Preparing food from scratch is cheaper than buying ready meals and much better for us. To some degree, it is perhaps also about valuing good food and considering it as a higher priority call on our income in comparison with other expenses .
9. Increasing a Sense of Community
In the Mediterranean time is spent “breaking bread” together with family and friends. Being part of a community where time is spent in company (a word which incidentally derives from the od Italian “con pane” – with bread) and enjoying food together has been shown to improve health and longevity in itself. A focus on the Mediterranean diet is also a focus on communal enjoyment of the sharing of food.
A pressing reason for our generation to eat healthily is not only to increase our chances of a long and healthy life, but to also play our part in reversing climate change for the sake of our children and future generations.
The Mediterranean diet is lower in red meat and industrial processed foods. It is a plant-based diet based on local seasonal fresh, natural foods and extra virgin olive oil at its heart can be well produced such that the olive tree is not only capable of flourishing in arid, almost desert environments with minimal water use, but sinks 10kg of carbon for every litre of extra virgin olive oil produced.
You can learn more about the Mediterranean diet by reading Simon’s latest book, The Real Mediterranean Diet. This book demystifies why a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle can improve the health of everyone, young and old. Explaining its origins in Ancient Greece to the modern day, this book is packed with recipes, photography and the science that joins up all the dots.
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