Olive oil, olive oil everywhere, and more than a drop to drink…well, not drink, but certainly enjoy as part of the wonderfully healthy dishes we delighted in on our recent cooking tour of Italy.
A few weeks ago, Green Mountain sponsored its first “Food Lover’s Adventure in Mindful, Exquisite Eating” in the beautiful Emilia-Romagna region of Italy (outside Bologna). Cooking and sampling our way through this area that is widely renowned as the culinary capital of Italy, we were struck by the use of olive oil to prepare the many taste treats we enjoyed. It wasn’t used in large quantities, but the oil added a truly exquisite flavor. Could this truly be good for us?
Fortunately, yes! And that’s the reason Green Mountain chose to travel to this part of the world in the first place. Fine olive oil is an ingredient that, used reasonably, not only adds wonderful taste to foods, it’s wonderfully healthy for us. The result: Meals that satisfy our desire to enjoy food and stay healthy in the process.
The Mediterranean Diet
The use of olive oil marks a major difference between the diets of people who live in Italy and other Mediterranean countries and people who live in the U.S. Olive oil – a monounsaturated fat that research shows helps reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol and guards levels of “good” cholesterol in the blood – often replaces other types of fat such as butter – a saturated fat that, used in excess, can increase blood levels of “bad” cholesterol. This is one of the reasons that many scientists believe contributes to the lower incidence of chronic illness such as heart disease seen in Mediterranean countries.
Other research suggests that eating patterns that include moderate amounts of monounsaturated fats may also help us lose and keep off excess body fat. One reason seems to be that people feel more satisfied with the foods they are eating, largely because of the flavor. Fat also appears to help us manage hunger better, possibly because it causes the body to produce the satiety hormone cholecystokinin.
Of course, the type of fat used is not the only reason for the better health enjoyed by many people of this region. Their diets also feature plenty of grains, legumes (dried beans and peas), nuts, vegetables, fruits, moderate amounts of fish and poultry, dairy products such as cheese and limited amounts of red meat.
The Mediterranean Lifestyle
Diet isn’t the only difference between our Mediterranean friends and Americans. It is generally observed that many Europeans are much more physically active as part of their daily lives. They frequently use their two feet – not the car – to take them where they want to go. This daily habit can add up to “unnoticeable” physical activity – not something you have to plan and get motivated for – that adds up to a big health benefit.
Fusion Cuisine: American Food – Mediterranean Style
So how do we translate the Mediterranean way into healthier eating for American-style diners? Following are a few tips to start slowly; it’s not generally recommended that we try to totally revamp our eating style overnight. We can continue to enjoy our (and our family’s) favored foods, but with a few slight changes that can spell better health and healthier weights for all.
- Get & stay active. This is actually the best piece of advice we can give. An active lifestyle, whether it’s formal exercise or just part of going about our days, offers perhaps the greatest range of benefits to health, from feeling great, motivating us, and managing our weight to reducing our risk for disease.
- Add flavor and health to meals with olive oil and other monounsaturated fats. Give up fat-free and very-low-fat diets and begin to enjoy the pleasure of meals that contain moderate amounts of healthy, good-tasting fats like olives and olive oil, nuts, seeds and their oils (walnut oil, sesame oil, etc), and avocadoes. We still don’t want to overdo it, though. Too much fat – regardless of the type – can add up to calories we don’t use, which are then turned into body fat. But because these types of fat are so flavorful, a little goes a long way.
- Just a few drops of sesame oil can add a wonderfully exotic flavor to soups, salads and stir fries.
- A slice or two of avocado can mean a tasty change for salads and sandwiches.
- A tablespoon or two of toasted almonds, walnuts or pecans can perk up salads or even produce a yummy crisp coating for baked chicken breasts.
- If a dish such as a quickbread calls for a fat that doesn’t contain a lot of flavor, use canola oil. It’s monounsaturated but flavorless.
- Enjoy fatty fish such as salmon, trout, fresh and canned tuna, sardines & more. The American Heart Association recommends we eat fatty fish twice a week to reduce our risk for heart disease. The oils in fatty fish offer the same type of beneficial effects you get from olive and other monounsaturated oils.
- Enjoy a wide variety of foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, meats, poultry, beans, eggs, and an occasional sweet if you enjoy them. Variety is the first principle of healthy eating; it also helps reduce food boredom, which can send us on “food searches” that have nothing to do with physical hunger.
- Be a food critic. We tell women who come to Green Mountain to get very particular about their food. Make meals and snacks that really do taste great your way of life. Instead of a quick fast food burger, stop by the sandwich shop and order a taste delight that’s brimming with ripe tomatoes, dark green lettuce, crunchy sprouts, freshly-roasted meats, poultry, fish, cheese or hummus, and enhanced with wonderful ingredients such as avocadoes. Lightly sprinkle the bread and/or filling with oil and vinegar, then dive in! If a whole sandwich like that seems too much for one meal, many shops offer half sandwiches.
- Indulge yourself. If it’s within your financial ability, spend the extra for ingredients such as fine olive oil, real Parmesano-Reggiano cheese (made in Emilia-Romagna – you won’t believe the difference in taste) and good wine and Balsamic vinegars (look for Balsamic vinegar – also from Emilia-Romagna – made in the traditional way). You usually won’t find these foods and ingredients in grocery stores – you’ll have to go to a specialty shop. The trip and extra money is definitely worth the flavor. Plus, you’ll find the extra rich flavor of these ingredients means you can use less – which often means calorie as well as $$$ savings.