Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Here’s to your health, olive

A little olive oil a day can keep breast tumors away



Health trends in diet come and go as fast as you can say food fad. Eat oat bran; don’t eat oat bran. Eat cranberries; no, eat tons of blueberries.

We all heard for years how healthy it is to include olive oil in our diet. And then we heard maybe it wasn’t as great as people thought because some results were unproven.

But once again olive oil is back in the health spotlight, with sound research to back it up: Scientists at Chicago's Northwestern University found that oleic acid, found in olive oil, blocks the action of a cancer-causing gene found in 30 per cent of women with breast cancer.

While the scientists called the study results encouraging, they also cautioned that lab results do not always translate into clinical practice. But I say what the heck, go for it. I know too many women who are breast cancer survivors or are walking in the 60-km Weekend to End Breast Cancer marathon each summer because they know a woman who has been hit by it. Making sure you have a little olive oil in your diet can’t hurt.

The bennies of olive oil have been cited for years as part of the overall benefits of the so-called Mediterranean diet, one that’s rich in fish, fruit, vegetables and olive oil, and lower in meat and dairy than most people in North America are used to.

All the health advocacy around olive oil/the Mediterranean diet started way back in the 1960s when scientists observed that people in Crete, otherwise known as Cretans (as opposed to cretins) ate a lot of salt and fat. But they also ate a lot of plant foods. The point of interest was that they were living longer than the proverbial long-lived Japanese, who also ate a lot of salt – tamari and miso anyone? – but whose diet was low in fat and lower in plant foods.

The Cretans showed lower rates of stroke, stomach cancer, heart disease and other cancers. Researchers observed that other people living around the Mediterranean region also had a lower incidence of heart disease, despite their high intake of mono-unsaturated fats, namely olive oil. As well, some research shows that olive oil may influence body fat distribution, with less fat stored around the stomach.

While studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet can reduce risk of death from heart disease and cancer, direct experiments on animals haven’t yet delivered consistent results. So other than the breast cancer research, we are all still a little murky over the real health benefits.

My conclusion is certainly olive oil is better than saturated fats, and it can’t hurt, especially if you’re a woman. But maybe the bottom line will be that one day we’ll find that all these health benefits have more to do with the good wine, plentiful sunshine and laid back lifestyle in those lovely Mediterranean climes than they do with anything else.