Mediterranean magic: is it all in the olive oil?

What is it about the Mediterranean diet that is SO healthy?

Study after study reveals notable benefits of the Mediterranean diet for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s  -- so many chronic diseases. This breast cancer prevention study zeroed in on olive oil. And while the olive oil is most certainly effective, I’m equally sure that it’s only part of the reason. We Americans always look for the one magic bullet to solve our problems! But the beauty of the Mediterranean “diet” is that Mediterranean cultures have orchestrated the whole health package: diet PLUS lifestyle.

Yes, the olive oil is ancient and gorgeous and healing. But Italians, for example, live life at a slower pace, enjoying every bite. Keeping it simple, using the freshest ingredients. They eat their big meal in the middle of the day. They take naps. They don’t obsess. They throw troubles off,  saying, “Non mi importa,” I don’t care… or more colloquially, I don’t give a damn! Except, of course, if the pasta is cooked beyond al dente, THEN they care.

I learned this firsthand at age 34.5 when I took a life sabbatical and landed in the ancient city of Rome, one exhausted corporate workaholic who had just lost her luggage. Knocking on my host’s door, I was greeted by a tiny signora, gesticulating in what seemed to be extremely spicy Italian. She may have been saying “hello,” or more likely, ”so, you’re the crazy American who doesn’t speak Italian,” but either way, my reaction was completely predictable. As was hers.

I broke into tears. She broke out the food.

Here’s where my healing began: when I started to make a healthy connection with food in a culture that reveres it, and where it is a part of the nourishing pace of everyday life.

I gradually embraced my new world. The gorgeous food, of course -- but that’s not to say that every day is a major feast for Italians. The big feast is Sunday lunch, where everybody sits at length at the table. On a daily basis, the food is done simply with fresh ingredients, not fancy schmancy. But people do take time to eat, savoring. They’re not eating in their cars, they’re not quickly shoving  it down. The revelation for me was: this is altogether simple, delicious, and fulfilling. Instead of saying, “ok, we’re going to meditate and relax now,” the slower, life-supporting pace is built in. That’s how they roll.

Cook like an Italian!

It’s not like I’m suggesting you become Mediterranean overnight. But, where can we connect the dots in our lives?

  • Work with the freshest ingredients we can.
  • Keep it simple -- a little olive oil, sea salt, lemon.
  • Don’t overdo. Italians tend not to eat a lot, except Sunday lunch when they indulge. But they don’t do it every day!
  • Take care of each other. Build a sense of community.
  • Walk a lot. Italians aren’t exercise fanatics the way we are -- they just walk, a lot. (They don’t stop and smell the roses -- they stop and smell the rosemary!)
  • Eat lentils, whole grains, olive oil and olives, and LOTS of vegetables, herbs, nuts and seeds. Use high quality, grass-fed meat as a garnish. Very basic, very humble. And easy!

From my book The Longevity Kitchen, try Roasted Olives with Citrus and Herbs and Tuscan Beans and Greens.

Both of these are terrific go-to recipes. It’s as easy as can be to pop olives in the oven and roast them, but believe me, the results are exotic and incredible -- the perfect touch for your next dinner party or Sunday lunch. And the beans and greens are a sustaining, nutrient-dense choice for lunch or dinner, to keep you on a healthy roll.

Buon appetito!

Learn more about the “Blue Zones.”

To further enrich your understanding of the potential for healthy living and longevity, look at Dan Buettner’s research, books and talks on the Blue Zones, regions of the world where people live measurably longer and healthier lives. He explains the Mediterranean way of life so beautifully, especially in Greece and Sardinia, having studied the cultures in detail. I consider him to be the authority because he’s looking at the demographic data in the BIG picture of health.

Connecting the dots: As I’m fond of saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olive oil is, indeed, a wonderfully healthy food; but even more so, incorporate simple food and lifestyle changes that bring health, longevity -- and joy!