Did you know that May is National Mediterranean Diet Month? If I had to pick one “diet” for my patients the Mediterranean diet would be it. There is strong evidence that following the dietary pattern of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea can lower your risk of many chronic diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish and unprocessed grains, and low consumption of meat and meat products (maybe two to three times per month). One of the biggest staples of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil.
Olive oil is rich in the heart healthy type of fats, monunsaturated fats or MUFAs. These types of fatty acids are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and help to reduce the a amount of bad (LDL) cholesterol while helping to boost your good (HDL) cholesterol. In addition to MUFAs, olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These work to lower oxidative stress which is the root of many chronic diseases. And although just 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories and 14 g of fat, observational studies do not show a link between high olive oil consumption and weight gain or obesity. Score one for olive oil! So now that we’ve established how great olive oil is- which one to pick? With all the choices out there nowadays, choosing which olive oil to buy can be a bit overwhelming. A good rule of thumb: go for quality.
The quality of olive oil is based on its acid content. As acid content goes up, quality goes down. The best olive oils come from the first pressing and range from golden yellow to almost bright green in color. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has the lowest acid at less than 3% and is therefore the highest quality. Extra virgin olive oil is also the only olive oil that contains all the beneficial antioxidants and bioactive compounds since it is minimally processed. Unfortunately, there’s some fraud in the olive oil market. There are some olive oils that are labeled as extra-virgin that may actually be diluted with refined oils. Be sure to check the bottle for a label from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group that tests olive oils to see if they measure up to the manufacturer’s claims. The trade group tests olive oils to determine if they are what the labels say they are and not adulterated or a mislabeled product.
Since light and oxygen can effect the quality of EVOO be sure to look so look for containers that contain the sell-by date or harvest date. Keep in mind that olive oil generally has a shelf life of about 12 months so the newer the better (note sell-by or harvest dates are not mandatory so you may have to do a little searching). Also, look for opaque or dark glass containers and choose bottles toward the back of the shelf, where no direct light reaches. Since EVOO is the typically the most expensive I recommend to use it in dishes where you can really appreciate the flavor. A great way to incorporate EVOO into your diet is to drizzle on raw foods such as salad greens, ripe tomatoes or green beans. You can also use it as a base for a homemade salad dressing like the one here. Mangia!
I recently attended a tour of a local farm for our monthly dietetic association meeting. This farm happened to operate a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership program. I had heard the term “CSA” thrown around a lot but have to admit I wasn’t quite sure what being a part of one entailed. A quick background: Community supported agriculture (CSA) was introduced in 1985 to promote fresh, locally grown food and foster both social and ecological responsibility. A CSA is a concept designed to encourage relationships between both consumers and growers and for consumers to become more knowledgeable about the way their food is grown. One of the main benefits of a CSA is that it addresses the concern of the distance the food travels from farm to consumer. I was shocked to learn that in the US the average distance from farm to consumer is 1300 miles! In addition to decreasing the amount of emissions from long travel time, obtaining the food locally ensures that the money stays within the local community.
After learning about the benefits of a CSA program I decided to take the plunge. I have had a great experience so far and have so many different veggies that have forced me to get creative in the kitchen. This has inspired so many dishes that I will be sharing them weekly for the next few months in a series called “Farm Fresh Friday”. Stay tuned for some delish, unique recipes!
Flaxseed is packed with disease fighting plant chemicals and nutrients such as fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, but if you’re eating them whole you’re missing out. Make sure to grind flaxseeds prior to eating to receive all the nutritional benefits. The hard exterior shell of a flaxseed is indigestible, so whole flaxseeds go straight through your digestive system without giving us the plant nutrients. You can grind your flaxseeds at home or purchase flaxmeal instead. I like to add ground flaxseed to smoothies, sprinkle on oatmeal and yogurt or add to homemade baked goods to add a health kick like these banana flax muffins.
Coconut oil is often touted as healthy or even that it helps “burn fat” because it has a high percentage of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). However, this statement isn’t necessarily true. Why is that? Well, bear with me for a quick biochem lesson ya’ll. The research done with MCTs uses mostly refined MCT oil preparations from capric and caprylic acids. The MCTs found in coconut oil are predominantly lauric acid. Therefore, we can’t extrapolate from studies using refined MCT oil preparations to coconut oil. Still with me? OK good… Studies that have tested coconut oil’s effect (not pure MCT oil) on cholesterol show that coconut oil actually causes an increase in total and LDL (AKA bad) cholesterol.
Believe it or not, coconut oil actually contains more saturated fat than butter! There is some recent research looking at how the type of saturated fat found in plant based foods may be different than the saturated fats found in animal products, but until more research is done and this theory is confirmed, coconut oil should be treated like any other saturated fat. So in a (coco)nut shell, if you enjoy the flavor of coconut oil, go right ahead-just remember moderation is key. Also, using the less processed (virgin) coconut oil is a better choice, as the fatty acids will be closer to their original form, and the oil will contain more of the beneficial plant chemicals.