The Mediterranean diet is well-regarded for its abundance of good fats, not only from olive oil, but also from nuts, seeds, avocados, other plant-based oils, and fish. Last year, Greeks - the biggest consumers of olive oil in the world - polished off roughly four gallons of olive oil per person according to recent data from the International Olive Council. Compare that to about a third of a gallon per year consumed by the average American.
What makes the fats that come from olive oil and other foods “good?” Unsaturated fats – the “good” fats found in plant-based oils, nuts, and fish – help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol (one of the major risk factors leading to heart disease, heart attack and stroke), and they’ve recently been linked with lower mortality.
Unsaturated fats come in two varieties: monounsaturated fats (found in avocados, almonds, olive oil and many seeds) and polyunsaturated fats (found in foods like walnuts and fish). In the same study mentioned above, consuming more omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids was linked with lower risk of death due to neurodegenerative disease. Consuming marine-based omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (mainly from fish) was associated with lower respiratory disease mortality and sudden cardiac death. Replacing saturated fats like butter, lard, and fat from red meat with any type of unsaturated fat can offer huge health benefits.
As anyone who’s tried Mediterranean dishes can attest, healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil can also contribute flavor. The low-fat craze over the past few decades led consumers to believe low-fat products were healthier, even though many were highly processed and contained high amounts of sugar and sodium to make up for the lack of flavor. Unprocessed foods flavored with healthy fats, such as fresh vegetables and whole grains, combine good taste and good health.
Greeks are also the world’s top consumers of vegetables, perhaps because they know how to harness their flavor, often baking or simmering them in a mixture of fresh herbs, tomatoes, and olive oil. They eat salads dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar at almost every meal, and even use olive oil in their desserts. According to Aglaia Kremezi, an authority on Greek culture cooking, “Butter has never been an important ingredient in traditional Greek cooking, because the country is not suitable for raising cattle… The sweet butter from cows that Europeans and Americans take for granted has become readily available in Greece only during the past forty years.” Like many people around the Mediterranean, Greeks incorporated olive oil, nuts and seeds for flavor in their sweets out of necessity, but with delectable results.
Slow-cooked vegetables in olive oil, fresh salad, and whole grain bread could make an entire meal, but a popular Mediterranean addition is a simple pan-fried or grilled fish. Fish, such as mackerel and sardines, are typically eaten at least twice a week there, and offer even more good fats. Check out one of our most popular salmon recipes below for an easy and delicious option.
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