Q&A: Mediterranean Diet: Healthy Despite Olive Oil

Dr. Michael Klaper answers questions on a wide variety of health and nutrition-related subjects. To submit a question or topic for possible inclusion here, send e-mail to: answers@DoctorKlaper.com

Posted: March 3, 2013

You may have heard or read the latest rave reviews for the “Mediterranean Diet” as an effective deterrent to heart attacks and strokes, based on a recent presentation at the International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition (1), published online in the New England Journal of Medicine (2) and reported in mainstream media.

Compared to a Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) that pours a lethal stream of heavy fats, hydrogenated oils, refined sugars, and artery-injuring proteins through one’s blood stream, the Mediterranean Diet, which relies heavily on vegetables, fruits, pasta and fish, is certainly an improvement. It’s healthier because it’s a mostly vegetarian diet, largely free of red meat and dairy products.

Although I have some concerns about eating fish – because fish is often laden with mercury and pesticides and because harvesting fish often results in widespread destruction of our ocean ecology – what concerns me most about the Mediterranean Diet is olive oil.

I cringed when I read the first five words of an article by an Associated Press Chief Medical Writer, “Pour on the olive oil… (3)” It’s as if magical properties are being ascribed to this processed, fatty liquid and that pouring tablespoons of it onto your food somehow makes your meal “heart healthy.” Not so!

Pouring olive oil on your food does NOT make your meal “heart healthy.” Olive oil makes your arteries stiffer (4) and can contribute to the formation of artery-clogging atherosclerotic plaques (5) and, thus, damage the health of your arteries (6). This was demonstrated by the largely overlooked fact that both groups in the study mentioned above (2) continued to have a steady stream of heart attacks and strokes throughout its five years of tracking.

If you’re trying to lose weight, olive oil is NOT your friend. It has 13.5 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon. Although the Mediterranean Diet is inspired, in part, by eating patterns in Greece, Greeks have the highest rate of obesity in Europe (7) and 55% of the fat they carry comes from olive oil! (8)

In the study that garnered so much attention last week (2), the “low-fat” group decreased their fat intake from 39% to 37%. However, 37% fat is hardly a low-fat diet! Most of the participants in the study, conducted in Spain, were overweight, diabetic, and at high risk for artery disease. Those facts alone should alert you to the true effects of their customary “Mediterranean” diet.

As others have noted, the Mediterranean Diet is healthy IN SPITE of olive oil, not because of it. (9)

Vegetable oils are the white sugar of the fat world. In a video appearing in my web site, I describe all refined oils as “liquid fat in a bottle” and discuss the realities of this oily, health-injuring condiment.

A salad – particularly one that’s made from local, organic ingredients – is “heart healthy” all by itself. You don’t enhance its goodness by pouring olive oil on it.

You can do much better than the people in the study mentioned above (2) while enjoying great-tasting food. You don’t ever need to eat refined oils – olive or any other. You’re better off without them.

There are lots of salad dressings and pasta sauces that do NOT include oil, as you’ll find when searching the Internet. Look for “oil-free salad dressing recipes” or “oil-free pasta sauce recipes.” You can make them yourself or buy them in a store.

Eat food “as grown” – eat olives instead of olive oil and enjoy oil-free dressings and sauces.

I recommend a nourishing, whole-food, plant-based diet. Get your needed fats from walnuts, olives, ground flaxseeds, avocados, and other whole foods with an “S.O.S.-free” eating style (no added salt, oil, or sugar).

For more on this subject, see my 11-minute video: “Olive Oil Is Not Healthy.

REFERENCES

NOTE: The New Windowicon indicates the corresponding link opens in a new tab or window.

1) International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition New Window

2) New England Journal of Medicine: Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet New Window

3) Marilynn Marchione, AP Chief Medical Writer, in The Republic, Star Tribune New Window and Washington Post New Window

4) The postprandial effect of components of the Mediterranean diet on endothelial function. New Window Vogel RA, Corretti MC, Plotnick GD. Department of Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2000 Nov 1;36(5):1455-60.

5) The influence of diet on the appearance of new lesions in human coronary arteries. New Window Blankenhorn DH, Johnson RL, Mack WJ, el Zein HA, Vailas LI. Atherosclerosis Research Institute, University of Southern California School of Medicine. JAMA. 1990 Mar 23-30;263(12):1646-52.

6) Effects of dietary fat quality and quantity on postprandial activation of blood coagulation factor VII. New Window Larsen LF, Bladbjerg EM, Jespersen J, Marckmann P. Research Dept of Human Nutrition, Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Frederiksberg, Denmark. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 1997 Nov;17(11):2904-9.

7) The high-fat Greek diet: a recipe for all? New Window Ferro-Luzzi A, James WP, Kafatos A. National Institute for Food and Nutrition Research, Rome, Italy. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Sep;56(9):796-809.

8) Changes in nutritional pattern, insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance during weight loss in obese patients from a Mediterranean area. New Window Calle-Pascual AL, Saavedra A, Benedi A, Martin-Alvarez PJ, Garcia-Honduvilla J, Calle JR, Maranes JP. Servicio de Endocrinologia y Nutricion, Hospital Universitario San Carlos, Madrid, Spain. Horm Metab Res. 1995 Nov;27(11):499-502.

9) Mediterranean diet and public health: personal reflections. New Window Keys A. Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 55454-1015, USA. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Jun;61(6 Suppl):1321S-1323S.

Thank you for visiting my website and for considering my professional services when you need reliable medical information in understandable terms. Contact me for a private consultation.

To your good health and happiness,

Dr. Michael Klaper