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Olive oil could be the star of The Year of Fat

For years, we’ve been told that a low fat diet would reduce the risk for breast cancer.  Data from the PREDIMED study in Spain could turn that recommendation on its head.  The PREDIMED study was designed to examine the effects of a Mediterranean style diet on cardiovascular disease risk factors.  Subjects are assigned to one of 3 diets:

  1. a Mediterranean style diet plus extra virgin olive oil
  2. a Mediterranean style diet plus mixed nuts
  3. a low fat control diet.

While the main focus is cardiovascular disease, researchers also used the data to assess any effect of these diets on breast cancer risk.  As part of the study, over 4000 women aged 60-80 years old, were followed for 5 years for breast cancer incidence.  Compared to the low fat diet control group, the olive oil group had a 62% lower risk for breast cancer, while the mixed nut diet group had a 38% lower risk.  Conclusion: eating 15% or more of daily calories as olive oil had the most benefit.

But the low fat mantra persists.  Consider this quote from BreastCancer.org:

The large Women’s Health Initiative Trial compared the breast cancer risk of postmenopausal women who ate a low-fat diet to those who continued to eat their regular diet. The researchers didn’t find any significant differences in breast cancer risk between the two groups.

Nevertheless, the conclusion is that a low fat diet is the better choice.  It seems researchers are determined to stigmatize fats, regardless of evidence.  Why?

Keep in mind, the PREDIMED study is all about the Mediterranean diet plus olive oil and/or nuts.  The fats are plant-based.  It’s not about gorging on high fat meats or buttery pastries or ice cream.  Also, olive oil was not the only source of dietary fats.  Any meats or cheeses or other foods prepared with fat also contributed fat to the diet.

What does 15% of calories as olive oil look like?  Let’s say you’re a woman with a daily intake of about 1600 calories total.  15% of that would be 240 calories, or about 2 tablespoons.  What are some ways you could consume that everyday?

  • One of the most efficient ways to include olive oil is to use it for salad dressing.  You might use 1/2 to 1 TB of olive oil on a large serving of tossed green salad.
  • Instead of buttering bread, dip it in olive oil seasoned with black pepper and herbs.  But be careful.  It’s really easy to soak up a lot of olive oil with bread.
  • Instead of using a non-stick pan, use olive oil to sauté vegetables.
  • Sauté potato slices in olive oil for breakfast or dinner.
  • Cook eggs in olive oil, rather than butter or (gah!) margarine.
  • Toss cooked pasta with olive oil before serving
  • Drizzle olive oil on cooked grains, such as rice.
  • Baste meats and fish with olive oil before grilling
  • Toss vegetables in olive oil before roasting. Good choices: potatoes, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc.
  • When making tuna or egg salad, cut the mayonnaise with olive oil (roughly 1 part olive oil to 2 or 3 parts mayonnaise)
  • Substitute olive oil for shortening or butter when baking quick breads or muffins.

If you used 2-4 of these food prep techniques everyday, you’d probably approximate 15% of calories as olive oil, possibly more.  But like any fat, it is high calorie.  You can’t add olive oil on top of a diet that’s already high in other fats, from meats, cheeses, desserts, spreads and fried foods.  The best strategy is to combine high fat olive oil with practically-non-fat vegetables or grain foods.

Which olive oil? I personally prefer single-source oil, not a cheap blend of oils from multiple countries.  In addition to European-source oils, you can now find nice olive oils from California, Australia and other locations.  Olive oil flavor reflects the soil and weather conditions from where it was grown, as well as tree variety, so be adventurous and try different brands.  If you can cut your risk for breast cancer while enjoying delicious whole foods, so much the better.

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