Mediterranean Diet Study: The Benefits Of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

This past week, a Spanish study touting the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet – one that is heavy on fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, nuts, poultry, and olive oil – made headlines.  All of a sudden, the coverage told us, it’s okay to not be afraid of dietary fat.

Upon reading the details of the study, however, it seems that the only heavy dietary fat that was added into the diets of the test subjects was extra virgin olive oil, and nuts, and with this change, weight loss was tracked.  From CNN:

The study — from scientists looking at the weight and waist circumference of 7,447 people who ate three different diets for five years in a randomized control study — suggests that a Mediterranean diet (versus a low-fat diet, in which you avoid all fat) is more successful in helping you lose a little weight. This is true even if you are older, have type 2 diabetes or are already obese or overweight….

Researchers figured this out by comparing data from men between the ages of 55 and 90 and women between 60 and 80 years old. About 90% of the people in the study were overweight or obese when they started the trial and either had type 2 diabetes or had high cholesterol or high blood pressure or were smokers.

The test subjects of the much ballyhooed study published in the British medical journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, then, were in health categories with the hardest weight loss hurdles – older and diabetic – without any tracking of exercise and lifestyle, and thanks to this, we are told that fat is not a bad thing to have in the diet.  Just vegetable fat though, not animal fat.  Real butter was still not allowed, nor was sugar or red meat.  Per The Guardian:

The Mediterranean diet in the Predimed study, however, though high in fats does not include red meat or butter. Participants ate fish, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. “It does not include many foods and beverages that have been associated with long-­term weight gain, such as fast­ foods, sweets and desserts, butter, red meat and processed meat, and sugar­ sweetened beverages,” write the authors in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal.

The Mediterranean Diet is one of several “high fat” diets that are being studied to determine their impact on weight loss.  For several decades, diets low in all fats, good and bad, have been officially advocated and pushed by government agencies and professional medical groups in the United States and United Kingdom.  As has been observed in the United States, even with that advocacy, more people are obese than ever before.  According to BMI, 40% of American women are.  That puts most at risk for metabolic disorders, including diabetes, heart disease, and a whole lot more.

High fat diets, in contrast, that include natural saturated fats and limit carbohydrates other than fruits and vegetables, such as Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, and others that DO produce weight loss results, are normally dismissed as unhealthy for one reason or another.

This study, given the diet that was actually used, was more about the weight-loss benefits of extra virgin olive oil, than fats as a whole.  Not that extra virgin olive oil is a bad thing, by any means, but that natural animal fats other than oily fish are still being eschewed in favor of plant fats, and that all that was considered in the study was weight loss, not inflammation reduction or control of diabetes should not be dismissed.

This new study is, yes, another vindication for the idea that good fats do not make humans gain weight.  However, the spin put on the coverage of the study itself that fat is back, is overstating the situation.  More from The Guardian:

“Dietary guidelines should be revised to lay to rest the outdated, arbitrary limits on total fat consumption,” writes Prof Dariush Mozaffarian, from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, Boston, US, in a comment piece in the journal.

“Calorie-obsessed caveats and warnings about healthier, higher-fat choices such as nuts, phenolic-rich vegetable oils, yoghurt, and even perhaps cheese, should also be dropped. We must abandon the myth that lower-fat, lower-calorie products lead to less weight gain.”

We should be focusing on the quality of our food rather than the calorie content on restaurant menus, and it is paradoxical to ban whole milk but allow sugar-sweetened fat-free milk, he writes.

“The fat content of foods and diets is simply not a useful metric to judge long-term harms or benefits. Energy density and total caloric contents can be similarly misleading. Rather, modern scientific evidence supports an emphasis on eating more calories from fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, fish, yoghurt, phenolic-rich vegetable oils, and minimally processed whole grains; and fewer calories from highly processed foods rich in starch, sugar, salt, or trans-fat. We ignore this evidence – including these results from the Predimed trial – at our own peril.”

People who live in the actual Mediterranean region – including Spain – may have a problem with actual butter not being allowed, and calling it a Mediterranean diet.  They do eat a lot of it.  And whole-milk, fermented dairy, real sugar, and a certain amount of red meat, too.  One article pointed to “low” egg use in the region.  In some Mediterranean countries, eggs are a staple to the point of having daily dishes full of them.  People from that region do, however, consume a tremendous amount of fruits and vegetables.  And a whole lot of extra virgin olive oil. 

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