Under my byline

What Homer ate?

Posted in Diet, Health, Living by Rrishi on 16 December 2007

The Manufacture of Oil, J Amman, 16th centuryOil’s well in the Mediterranean diet

Walk through any urban marketplace patronised by the upper middle classes and you will be overwhelmed with pity — not for the beggars, of whom less and less is seen in our access-controlled environments, but for the well-heeled shoppers. They all look so ill cared-for, with their stooping and shuffling gait, their tubelight complexions, their unfit bodies, cellphone elbows, restless movements and shallow breathing. There’s no doubt about it — we are on the threshold of an illness revolution.

Unfortunately, the richer we get, the less we use what we used to know. Instead, we pick up global middle-class habits. So, if Middle America has McDonald’s and Burger King, we have Bengali Sweets and Haldiram’s. We have plentiful and rich home food, eaten in a hurry or in front of the TV.

“As Indians, do we change easily?” asks Sanjeev Kapoor, the well-known TV chef. “We use lots of modern gadgets but we haven’t modified our lives that much. We accept junk foods readily but not fine food from other parts.”

He was speaking at a recent conference in Delhi on the Mediterranean diet, sponsored by the International Olive Council (IOC), a statutory body which wants to promote the use of olive oil as a healthy alternative to traditional Indian cooking oils. Olive oil is a fixture in the diets of the people of the olive-producing countries around the Mediterranean. Those people are known to be unusually resilient to cardiovascular and other diseases, compared with people who eat similar amounts of fat in other parts of the world, like Asia and North America.

The idea of the “Mediterranean diet” originated with Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota during the 1940s. He was struck by data that showed that well-fed American business executives were much more susceptible to heart disease than postwar Europeans subject to food shortages. Keys’ studies homed in on the level of cholesterol in the blood as a probable determining factor, and related it to the dietary intake of saturated fats. He publicised his findings widely, and also took his own advice (dying peacefully in 2004, almost 101 years old). Still, only since the 1990s have scientists and dietitians recognised the value of this dietary pattern.

Traditional food around the Mediterranean varies, but there are common components. Put together, these are called the Mediterranean diet. They include several helpings a day of fruit and vegetables, both cooked and raw; breads and rice; very little red and processed meat; fish a few times a week; limited quantities of high-fat dairy products; small portions of nuts; moderate daily red wine consumption; and most of all, healthy (that is, unsaturated) fats, especially from olive and canola (rapeseed) oil.

In other words, as little processed food as possible. Greens and legumes provide vitamins, minerals, fibre and some protein; carbs offer ready energy (important for those who do physical work); oily fish like salmon and tuna offer protein and omega-3 fatty acids (very good at reducing harmful blood cholesterol, boosting immunity and so on); nuts have good fats; red wine has antioxidants and anti-clotting agents; and paeans have been sung to olive oil.

“Olive oil is not just oil,” says Attilio Giacosa, an Italian gastroenterologist and cancer researcher, “it is a squeeze of a fruit with all protective elements.” Unlike most other edible oils, he means, it is not extracted chemically from seeds. Olives yield extra-virgin and virgin olive oils by simple mechanical means through the cold press technique. The fruit is crushed at cool temperatures to give the oil; heat would alter its natural antioxidants.

Extra-virgin oil “you can drink right away like orange juice”, adds Franco Oliva, deputy director and head of promotions for the IOC. This is the light oil drizzled onto salads or breads and, in India, rubbed into our heads. Beyond these categories, there are refined olive oil, olive oil (blend of virgin and refined), and pomace (the lowest quality, chemically extracted from the seeds and crushed remainder). The more refined it is, the cheaper. Since the cheaper qualities have fewer beneficial compounds in them, they are less susceptible to heat, and can be used for Indian-style cooking and frying. Extra-virgin also has a high smoking point and can be cooked in, but it will lose some of its nutritional value.

Ancient Greek olive press, in modern TurkeyOlive oil is most helpful not when added to the diet, but when used to replace saturated fats like vegetable oils and “animal” fats including butter. Recent, broad-based medical studies indicate that the Mediterranean diet, and its olive oil component in particular, dramatically reduce the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. They also help control obesity and, evidence suggests, will help you live longer.

It costs more than other cooking oils, but less olive oil is needed in cooking because it isn’t absorbed by the food. That way, nutrients are retained and less oil is used. “The world over it’s expensive. But we have to look at the benefits,” says chef Kapoor. IOC’s Oliva adds, “When the market is small, the price tends to be high.”

“Currently we may be becoming a wealthy India,” concludes Kapoor, showman-like, “but if the health of India is not approached I think the sone ki chidiya will fly away again.” Whether or not you go Med, you can’t dispute that.

(Upon reflection, I’m not totally confident in the science behind these claims. I don’t know enough. Still, choosing more carefully what you eat can’t be bad for you.)


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