World-renowned Mediterranean diet expert Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou talked to a Greek audience about “Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Secrets We All Know” at the Food Expo in Athens this spring. “We all know olive oil,” she said; “it’s in our DNA. Olive oil is not only health … it is culture, it is tradition, it is the economy, it is the environment.”
Culture, tradition, and the economy: as Trichopoulou reminded her listeners, olive oil has been an important part of Greek life since ancient times. It remains central to the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, which was ranked the “best diet overall” by US News and World Report this year. More than a food, olive oil is used in religious ceremonies, nutritional supplements, and cosmetics as well as cooking and dining. Olive groves are passed down through the generations, extended families gather to work on the annual harvest, and olive oil is both a crucial ingredient and a key export for Greece.
The environment: millions of olive trees extend their silvery green leaves across the hills, valleys, and plains of Greece, while olive oil appears in most traditional Greek dishes and on most Greek tables. This is good for both people and the ecosystem. As Trichopoulou mentioned to Greek Liquid Gold, “olive oil is a sustainable food, because the olive trees have a very low carbon footprint, and olive trees produce much less carbon dioxide than they use.”
Health: while many Greeks continue to enjoy a traditional healthy diet, Trichopoulou lamented that this is no longer predominant in Greece, which has slipped to number 26 in Bloomberg’s 2019 Healthiest Country Index, far below fellow olive oil producers Spain and Italy. She insisted that the health of Greeks would improve if more of them “returned to olive oil” and the Mediterranean diet.
After all, she added, olive oil contains more than 400 microcomponents, depending on the type of olive and the cultivation and production method. “We know several of them have strong antioxidant features, and there are some indications they may react on the mechanism of several diseases as prevention or cure”; we await the results of ongoing research for confirmation in clinical trials.
Meanwhile, Trichopoulou maintained, olive oil helps increase consumption of vegetables, because we can eat more of them if they are cooked in olive oil. For example, the traditional Greek dishes called “lathera,” or “oily,” are stews made with various vegetables, plenty of olive oil, onion, garlic, and herbs – dishes full of vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids, and other nutrients. Wild greens are also common in the Greek version of the Mediterranean diet. More than 150 edible wild greens in Greece are boiled and eaten with olive oil or prepared in “a vast array of pies” with great nutritional value, including a much higher flavonoid content than wine, onions, or tea.
Trichopoulou emphasized that olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean diet that first gained international attention for its health benefits in the mid 20th century and became better known in the 1990s. Designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010, the Mediterranean diet was honored as 2019’s “best diet overall” by US News and World Report — where it was also ranked the best diet for healthy eating, the best heart-healthy diet, best diabetes diet, best plant-based diet, and the easiest diet to follow.
Trichopoulou and other proponents of this diet were not surprised by these distinctions, but only by the fact that they didn’t come earlier (although the Med diet has been near the top of US News rankings in the past). After all, the Mediterranean diet is no passing fad; on the contrary, some of the healthiest people in the world have followed it for many years. A lifestyle as much as an eating plan, it differs from most popular diets in being based on time-tested traditional healthy eating and living patterns and the wide range of health benefits substantiated by increasing numbers of scientific studies.
The health benefits associated with the Med diet include reducing the risk or seriousness of inflammation, depression, obesity, bone loss, cognitive decline, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Yet the Mediterranean diet does not require calorie counting or avoidance of flavorful foods or wine—to the contrary.
It is a largely plant-based diet, with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and olive oil; daily dairy, olives, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices; moderate amounts of white meat, fish, eggs, legumes, and wine; and limited red meat, processed foods, and sweets. The lifestyle includes regular physical activity, adequate rest, sociability, and the use of traditional local seasonal products.
During decades of research on the Mediterranean diet, Trichopoulou has shared her discoveries about its health benefits around the globe. She helped develop the first Mediterranean diet food pyramid as well as a Mediterranean diet score that quantifies observance of this diet and simplifies research on its effects on health. She is now president of the Hellenic Health Foundation, Vice President of Filaios Friends of Olive Oil Society, and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center of Nutrition at the University of Athens School of Medicine.
The work of Antonia Trichopoulou and her collaborators has enabled countless health care professionals, researchers, students, and consumers worldwide to learn about this healthy traditional diet and lifestyle, often through the Mediterranean diet pyramid that introduces it with a concise, simple graphic overview.
Originally published on Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, agrotourism and food tourism suggestions, and olive oil news and information.