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Olive oil and veggies help the heart

It's no secret that eating well is good for both body and mind, so it may not come as a surprise that a new study finds women who eat more olive oil and leafy vegetables such as salads and cooked spinach are significantly less likely to develop heart disease.A group of Italian researchers found that women who ate at least 1 serving of leafy vegetables per day were more than 40 percent less likely to develop heart disease over an average of eight years, relative to women who ate two or fewer portions of those vegetables each week. Women who downed at least 3 tablespoons of olive oil daily – such as in salad dressing – were also 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, compared to women who ate the least olive oil.

It's not exactly clear why specifically leafy vegetables and olive oil may protect the heart, said study author Dr. Domenico Palli of the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute in Florence. “Probably the mechanisms responsible for the protective effect of plant-origin foods on cardiovascular diseases involve micronutrients such as folate, antioxidant vitamins and potassium, all present in green leafy vegetables.” Folate reduces blood levels of homocysteine, Palli explained, which is thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by damaging the inner lining of arteries. Other studies have shown people who eat more potassium have lower blood pressure, which can protect the cardiovascular system. Virgin olive oil may be particularly effective at lowering heart disease risk because of its high level of antioxidant plant compounds, he added.

This is not the first study to link olive oil or vegetables to good heart health. Most famously, the traditional Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables and monounsaturated fats from olive oil and nuts, but low in saturated fat from meat and dairy — has been tied to a decreased risk of heart disease. Mediterranean-style eating has also been credited with lowering risk for some cancers, diabetes, and, more recently, with slowing brain aging. Cardiovascular disease is a major killer, responsible for 30 percent of all deaths worldwide and the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.

To look more closely at the role of foods in protecting against heart disease, Palli and colleagues reviewed dietary information collected from nearly 30,000 Italian women participating in a large national health study. Researchers followed the women, whose mean age was 50 at the beginning of the study, for an average of 8 years, noting who developed heart disease. In that time, the women experienced 144 major heart disease-related events, such as heart attack or bypass surgery, the authors report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Women who ate at least one daily serving (about two ounces) of leafy vegetables – such as raw lettuce or endives, or cooked vegetables like spinach or chard — had a 46 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than women who ate at most two portions per week. Consuming at least an ounce of olive oil per day lowered their risk by 44 percent relative to women who consumed a half-ounce or less daily, the authors found.

The women's intake of other types of vegetables, such as roots and cabbages, and their consumption of tomatoes or fruit did not seem to be linked to their risk for major heart events. Both fruits and vegetables have been associated with heart benefits in past studies conducted elsewhere in Europe and in North America. The authors caution that the apparent lack of positive effect from high fruit consumption in their results may have something to do with a different attitude toward fruit in Italy. It is cheap, varied and easily available, so eating a lot of fruit is a widespread habit but it does not necessarily signal that the rest of someone's diet is as healthy, the authors wrote. Another issue with the study, Palli noted, is that women had to report how much they ate of various items, and some may not have remembered their diets accurately, or may have changed their eating habits during the study period. In addition, people sometimes over-estimate their healthy behaviors, believing they eat healthier than they really do.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published online December 22, 2010.

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Mediterranean Diet May Keep Aging Mind Sharp

A new study shows following a Mediterranean style diet rich in vegetables, olive oil, and fish may keep the mind sharp and slow age-related cognitive decline.The diet typified by the Italians, Greeks, and other Mediterranean cultures has already been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. But this and other studies are now suggesting that the diet may also have healthy benefits for the mind.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, non-refined cereals, olive oil, and moderate wine consumption, usually at meals. Researchers found older adults who followed the diet more closely had slower rates of age-related cognitive decline than those who didn't, even after adjusting for other factors such as educational level. “The more we can incorporate vegetables, olive oil, and fish into our diets and moderate wine consumption, the better for our aging brains and bodies,” says Christy Tangney, PhD, associate professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University, in a news release.

In the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers analyzed information gathered by the ongoing Chicago Health and Aging Project, which follows 3,759 adults over the age of 65 living on the South Side of Chicago. Every three years, the participants took tests of memory and basic math skills and filled out a questionnaire on how often they eat 139 different foods. The study follow-up time was 7.6 years on average.

Researchers looked at how closely the participants followed a Mediterranean diet and then compared it to their scores on age-related cognitive decline. Out of a maximum score of 55 for total adherence to a Mediterranean diet, the average score was 28. The results showed those with higher than average scores had a slower rate of age-related mental decline than those with lower scores. Researchers also looked at how closely the participants followed the Healthy Eating Index-2005, which is based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They found no relationship between adherence to this type of diet and the rate of age-related cognitive decline.

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Mediterranean diet set for World Heritage List

The Unesco world heritage list is normally associated with towering religious monuments and ancient Greek temples, crumbling castles and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It recognises the cultural value of the Hindu complex at Angkor Wat and the Acropolis in Athens, alongside the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines.

Now Italian officials are certain the UN will add a salad of tomato and mozzarella, topped off by a splash of olive oil to its list of global patrimony worth protecting.

The Mediterranean diet, with its mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, grilled fish and olive oil faces a final vote in November for ranking on Unesco's list of “intangible” cultural heritage, launched in 2003 to complement the collection of monuments and natural wonders, and covers oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals.

A plate of pasta washed down with a glass of wine could join the list of 178 cultural experiences including the tango, the polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of central Africa and Croatian lacemaking.

“This is a big success for our country, our dietary traditions and our culture,” said the Italian agriculture minister, Giancarlo Galan.

Rolando Manfredini of the Italian farmers' lobby group, Coldiretti, said: “It is a bit strange putting a diet on the list, and the first time they would do it, but it makes perfect sense. Not only is this culture, but it also makes you live longer and better.”

While trying not to dampen Italy's enthusiasm, a spokeswoman for Unesco warned that no decision would be made before a meeting in November. “The committee is free to make up its mind and there is no indication on what it will approve,” said Sue Williams.

Galan said the proposal was first made by Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco four years ago, and was turned down. The countries resubmitted it, stressing the cultural content of the diet, and this time he was convinced it would get the nod.

“A positive recommendation made by Unesco will now be ratified,” he said. The diet would join Sicilian puppet theatres and Sardinian pastoral songs, which already represent Italy on the list.

The diet took off in the rest of the world in the late 20th century, with postwar cookery writer Elizabeth David helping to promote it among English speakers. Today, said Williams, protecting a plate of tortellini was no different to stopping people scratching their initials in the Great Wall of China: “Being on the intangible list means the host country must promote and protect it exactly as it would a monument like Stonehenge,” she said.

Recent activities sponsored by Unesco include the revival of the intergenerational transmission of Georgian traditional polyphony and the “safeguarding” of Somali board games.

While the Mediterranean diet has found favour with chefs around the world, Coldiretti said it was in desperate need of protection in its native countries.
“In Italy today parents are still in good shape, but their children are increasingly suffering from obesity,” said Manfredini. “There has been a complete break in eating habits from one generation to another.”

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Mediterranean Diet Tied to Lower Breast Cancer Risk

Researchers have long speculated that the diet may help explain why nations in the Mediterranean region have historically had lower rates of heart disease and some cancers, including breast cancer, compared with other European countries and the U.S.

Until now, only two other studies have looked at the relationship between Mediterranean-style eating and the risk of breast cancer, both done in the U.S. Each found a connection between the diet and lower breast cancer risk, although in one the link was limited to breast cancers that lack receptors for the hormone estrogen — which account for about one-quarter of breast tumors.

The current study focused on women in Greece, as it is the “cradle” of the Mediterranean diet, and a large segment of the population still adheres to it, Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, the senior researcher on the work, told Reuters Health by email.

At the outset, the study participants completed detailed dietary questionnaires and gave information on their lifestyle habits and demographics. Each woman was given a Mediterranean diet score, ranging from 0 to 9, based on how often they consumed vegetables, legumes, fruit and nuts, whole grains, fish and olive oil or other sources of monounsaturated fats; they also won points by limiting meat and dairy.

Of the 14,800 women included, 240 were diagnosed with breast cancer over an average follow-up of 10 years.

Overall, postmenopausal women whose Mediterranean diet scores were in the 6-to-9 range were 22 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than their counterparts with scores between 0 and 3. That was with factors such as age, education, smoking history, weight and exercise habits taken into account.

The findings show an association between Mediterranean eating and lower breast cancer risk, but do not prove cause-and-effect, according to Trichopoulos, who is with the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the Bureau of Epidemiologic Research at the Academy of Athens in Greece.

Further studies are needed to confirm the results, he said.

However, other evidence suggests ways the Mediterranean diet might curb cancer risk.

Research has found, for instance, that women who closely follow the diet tend to have lower levels of estrogen, which fuels the growth of the majority of breast cancers, than other women do. Other studies in the lab suggest that the fats found in the Mediterranean diet — both olive oil and the omega-3 fats in oily fish — may slow the growth of cancer cells.

The diet is also typically rich in antioxidants, which protect body cells from damage that can eventually lead to disease, including cancer. Trichopoulos said that if the Mediterranean diet does have a protective effect against cancer, it is “likely” to involve that antioxidant component.

It also makes sense, said the researcher, that the diet could affect the risk of postmenopausal, but not premenopausal, breast cancer.

Younger women who develop breast cancer, he explained, often have a genetic vulnerability to the disease, whereas in older women, lifestyle and environmental exposures may be relatively more important contributors to risk.

Based on their findings, Trichopoulos and his colleagues write, the association between the Mediterranean diet and breast cancer is of “modest, but not negligible, strength.”

In the U.S., a woman's chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer rises from about a half a percent, or one in 233, during her 30s, to about four percent, or one in 27, during her 60s.

Established risk factors for breast cancer include older age and having had a first-degree relative diagnosed with the disease. Research has also linked obesity, sedentary lifestyle, use of hormone replacement therapy and high alcohol intake to an increased risk.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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Olive oil couild guard against ulcerative colitis

Eating more olive oil could help prevent ulcerative colitis, according to a new study co-ordinated by medical researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Presented today at the Digestive Disease Week conference in New Orleans, the findings show that people with a diet rich in oleic acid – which is present in olive oil –are far less likely to develop ulcerative colitis. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil, peanut oil and grapeseed oil, as well as in butter and certain margarines.

The researchers, led by Dr Andrew Hart of UEA's School of Medicine, studied more than 25,000 people aged 40-65 living in Norfolk, UK. The volunteers were recruited to the EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Diet and Cancer) between 1993 and 1997. The participants, none of whom had ulcerative colitis at the outset, completed detailed food diaries which were later analysed by specially trained nutritionists working in Cambridge.

By 2004, 22 participants in the study had developed ulcerative colitis and the researchers compared their diets with those who did not develop the disease. They found that those with the highest intake of oleic acid had a 90 per cent lower risk of developing the disease.

“Oleic acid seems to help prevent the development of ulcerative colitis by blocking chemicals in the bowel that aggravate the inflammation found in this illness,” said Dr Hart.

“We estimate that around half of the cases of ulcerative colitis could be prevented if larger amounts of oleic acid were consumed. Two-to-three tablespoons of olive oil per day would have a protective effect,” said Dr Hart.

Ulcerative colitis is a distressing disease affecting 120,000 people of all ages in the UK and 1 million in the US. It is characterized by inflammation of the lining of the colon or large bowel, which causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea and weight loss.

Similar work in other countries is now required to determine if these results are reproducible there, before the link can be said to be definite. If it is confirmed that oleic acid is truly protective, dietary modifications should be considered to prevent colitis. Additionally, the use of oleic acid supplements should also be assessed in the future as a possible treatment for colitis sufferers.

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