Health benefits of a Mediterranean style diet

The world of nutrition science can seem overwhelming and confusing, nutritional health trends seem to come and go, and debate over dietary components go on for years, especially with dietary fats. However, one constant for many years now has been the recommendation to adopt a Mediterranean style diet, including regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil for its flavour and beneficial fat profile (high monounsaturated, low saturated) despite this being seen as somewhat controversial by low-fat advocates.

The beneficial effects of olive oil have been studied since the 1800’s and among the research are 2 famous large-scale studies: the EPIC study and the PREDIMED study. The EPIC study [1] enrolled over 40,000 participants and followed them for over 10 years, ultimately showing that an olive-oil rich Mediterranean diet was linked to reduction in all-cause mortality, including that relating to cardiovascular disease.

The PREDIMED study [2] included 7,000 participants at high risk for developing heart disease randomly assigned to either a low-fat diet, a Mediterranean diet with added nuts, or a Mediterranean diet with added extra virgin olive oil. Those on both Mediterranean diets saw a 30% reduction in heart disease, and the study was stopped early as it was deemed ethically important to advise the low-fat group of the benefits of a Mediterranean way of eating!

Research has also linked the regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil to a myriad of other beneficial health outcomes including improvements in blood pressure [3], insulin sensitivity and diabetes risk [4], reduction in LDL-cholesterol and markers of inflammation [5], improvements in cognitive function [6], and it has shown the potential to influence DNA expression [7].

Long lorded as a healthy fat source, extra virgin olive oil offers us so much more than beneficial monounsaturated fats, it has a high polyphenol content compared to other types of olive oil and these confer their own benefits. Polyphenols are plant compounds shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, that help to modulate oxidative stress, and promote healthy ageing [8]. Extra virgin olive oil contains a mix of polyphenols including tyrosol, oleocanthal, lignans, flavonols, and anthocyanins. These compounds are also linked to gut health by inhibiting the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, and encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria by acting as a food source for them, the metabolites formed from this process also contribute to the beneficial effects seen from extra virgin olive oil consumption [9].

Over recent years there has been much debate over the smoke point of many oils and fats for cooking, with many advocating that extra virgin olive oil remain purely for use in cold/room temperature dishes such as salads. However, it’s the high concentrations of polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil that actually makes it desirable to cook with as they protect the oil during the cooking process [10]. Cooking traditional Mediterranean ingredients, such as tomatoes, onions, and garlic, with extra virgin olive oil has been shown to increase the bioavailability of their beneficial polyphenols, amplifying their potential benefit to health [11]. Further to this using extra virgin olive oil when cooking meat and fish helps limit the production of potentially harmful compounds like heterocyclic amines (the effect is amplified with the addition of garlic, herbs, and spices) and can even help protect the delicate omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish that are so desirable for health [12].

So, what’s the take home from this wealth of information? Relish lovely olive oil like Raphael’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil regularly, and don’t just use it for salads, embrace it for all your cooking needs and reap the benefits!



[References available here]

Rebecca Vincent BSc (Hons) mBANT rCNHC

Nutritional Therapist


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