Mediterranean diet

 

OLIO EXTRAVERGINE DI OLIVA NELLA DIETA MEDITERRANEAExtra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil is a promising and easy to use option for the prevention of chronic illnesses associated with old age. This is thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, due to its particular fatty acids composition (especially oleic) and to its many other components such as polyphenols and vitamin E. The above health benefits can be achieved by taking 20 grams of extra virgin olive oil in the daily diet (two spoons).

From the end of the seventies the scientific community has acknowledged the benefits of the Mediterranean people’s way of eating as an ideal diet, the “Mediterranean diet”. It is a very old traditional diet based on the consumption of bread, pasta, pulses, fruit, vegetables, fish and extra virgin olive oil.

 

Which role does extra virgin olive oil have in Mediterranean diet?

It’s not easy to give a definite description of the Mediterranean diet given that in the Mediterranean area countries of different cultures, ethnicities religions and economies coexist. Nevertheless we can single out one element common to all of them: extra virgin olive oil.

In the Mediterranean diet most of the lipids eaten come from the use of extra virgin olive oil and provide 25% of calorie intake. 65% of the total calorie intake mostly derives from complex carbohydrates made from wheat (bread, pasta) together with a small percentage of simple sugars. Proteins ( pulses, fish and meat) provide only 10% of the remaining nutrients.

The above data contrasts with the classic model of a diet, containing far more calories, 55% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 15% proteins.

Since the seventies industrialised countries have proposed the Mediterranean diet as the ideal diet based on the above characteristics. There is clear evidence that the Mediterranean diet plays a part in reducing the risk of developing obesity, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and some of the digestive system pathologies. Accordingly, during the last few years in western countries, there has been an increasing interest in learning and adopting the healthy eating traditions of most people in Mediterranean countries.

Traditional Mediterranean recipes which contain local products of “cucina povera” are an example of a healthy diet because they do not give more calories than needed, they are easily digestible and satisfying. Furthermore, the great variety of Mediterranean aromatic herbs and plants used in food preparation make it very palatable and give it an excellent taste, reducing the excessive use of fatty condiments.

 

Benefits

The New England Journal of Medicine has published a study by the Trichopoulos group that highlights the benefits provided by a diet poor in saturated fat and rich in extra virgin olive oil, fruit, vegetables and wheat in increasing life expectancy among the Greek population. The study included 22,043 adults who replied to a questionnaire on food frequency. Data analysis tried to establish a relation between the adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet and the incidence of the total number of deaths; death caused by coronary illnesses and tumors, considering age, gender, body mass index and level of physical activity. The mortality rate of subjects who followed mainly the Mediterranean diet showed a reduction of 25%  in the total death rate, a reduction of 33% in the mortality rate caused by coronary diseases and a reduction of 24% in death caused by tumours.

Extrinsic  pro-oxidant factors (exposure to toxins, radiations, etc.) and oxidative substances produced endogenously by metabolic processes can cause cellular damage that occurs during the aging process. Aging is multifactorial and progressive, universal and irreversible. Nevertheless there is some evidence that there are environmental influences which can modify some determining factors in this process. Some of the modifiable factors in the aging process are diet, physical and mental activity.

A recent analysis by the “Italian Longitudinal Study on Aging” carried out in one  group of elderly people in the South of Italy, who have followed the typical Mediterranean diet, has suggested that monounsaturated fatty acids (extra virgin olive oil) could protect against cognitive decline linked to aging and has also suggested that this protective effect can be related to the part fatty acids play in the diet in maintaining the integrity of the neurons cellular membrane.

After 50 years from the first observation carried out by Ancel Keys today there is strong and conclusive evidence which confirms the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet.

The steady increase of degenerative diseases suggests that it cannot be linked solely to genetic differences but above all to changes in the regimes of diet and physical activity. Currently it is agreed that promoting a healthy style of living, at any age, may bring about great benefits with regard to morbidity and mortality.