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Extra-vergin olive oil

Using extra-virgin olive oil is promising in the prevention of chronical diseases that are normally associated with old age. Thanks to its fatty acid, polyphenol- and vitamin E-rich composition, extra-virgin olive oil has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. A daily intake of 20 g (or two tablespoons) of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil can give these health benefits.

During the late 1970s, the scientific community acknowledged the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and recommended an ideal “Mediterranean diet” based on the consumption of bread, pasta, pulses, fruit, vegetables, fish and extra-virgin olive oil.

 

What role does Extra-Virgin Olive Oil have in the Mediterranean diet?

It is not easy to give a defining description of the Mediterranean diet, given the coexistence of different cultures, ethnicities, religions and economic systems in the Mediterranean region. Nevertheless, it is possible to single out an element common to all countries: extra-virgin olive oil. In the Mediterranean diet, most of the lipid consumption comes from extra-virgin olive oil, which provides a 25% calorie intake. The consumption of carbohydrates contributes to 65% of the total calorie intake, mostly from complex carbohydrates produced by wheat (bread, pasta) and 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 diet model, which contains far more calories: 55% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 15% proteins.

Since the 1970s, industrialised countries have proposed the Mediterranean diet as the ideal diet because of the previously mentioned characteristics. There is clear evidence that the Mediterranean diet plays a role in reducing the risk of developing obesity, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and some digestive diseases. Consequently, over the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the healthy eating traditions of Mediterranean countries.

Traditional Mediterranean recipes which contain local products from the “cucina povera” (kitchen of the poor) are an example of a healthy diet because they do not contain excessive calories; they are easily digestible and satisfying. Furthermore, the great variety of Mediterranean aromatic herbs and plants used in food preparation make the diet tasty and enticing, reducing the need to add fatty condiments.

 

Benefits

Research led by Mediterranean diet expert Trichopoulous, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlights the benefits of a diet poor in saturated fats and rich in extra-virginolive oil, fruit, vegetables and wheat, on life expectancy of the Greek population. A sample of 22,043 adult respondents completed a survey on food frequency. The researchers analysed the data to understand the relationship between following a Mediterranean diet and the incidence of total number of deaths; deaths caused by coronary illnesses and cancer. This was disaggregated by age, sex, body mass index and level of physical activity. The mortality rate of respondents who mainly followed a Mediterranean diet was 25% lower than the total mortality rate. The mortality rates caused by coronary diseases and cancer were reduced 33% and 24% respectively.

Pro-oxidant factors (exposure to toxins, radiations, etc.) and oxidative substances produced endogenously by metabolic processes can cause cellular damage during the ageing process. Ageing is multifactorial and progressive, universal and irreversible. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that environmental factors, such as diet and physical/mental activity can modify some steps in the ageing process.

The “Italian Longitudinal Study on Ageing” (ILSA) is study of the health status of a group of elderly Italian people who follow the typical Mediterranean diet. The analysis suggests that monounsaturated fatty acids (extra virgin olive oil) could protect against cognitive decline linked to ageing. Furthermore, it highlights how this protective effect can be related to the role fatty acids have in maintaining the integrity of the cell membrane of neurons.

Nowadays, fifty years after Ancel Keys’ first observations, there is strong and conclusive evidence confirming the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet. The steady increase of degenerative diseases suggests that this increase cannot be linked exclusively to genetics, but also to changes in diet and physical activity. It is widely acknowledged that the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, at any age, can bring about benefits to levels of morbidity and mortality.

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