The Mediterranean diet is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as the World Health Organization as it is considered one of the healthiest ways of nourishing your body. The lifestyle of this diet has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This was first observed when it was noted that Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy had a significantly lower cardiovascular death rate than the rest of Europe and so, the diet is based on how these countries eat on a daily basis. The Mediterranean diet is not a set diet as each country may eat differently, however, the diet is based on key principles that are shared by these countries. It is typically high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Some key factors to the Mediterranean diet are that it is plant based with moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, poultry and seafood with red meat only being consumed occasionally. A large component of the Mediterranean diet is the type of fat that is consumed. Healthy fats are consumed in large amounts with olive oil being the primary source and less healthy saturated fats are consumed less often. Other sources of healthy fats that are consumed in the Mediterranean diet include fats from fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. I wanted to check out the Mediterranean diet and see how these countries lived daily, so I traveled to Greece to see firsthand how the people integrate the diet into their daily lives.
After flying into Athens, we rented a car and drove west to the city of Agrinio. One of the main crops of Agrinio are olive trees- specifically those that grow Agrinion Olives. As mentioned earlier, olives and olive oil are a large staple to the Mediterranean diet. Olives and their trees have a large significance in Greek history. The Greeks were one of the first countries to cultivate olives with the earliest cultivation being over five thousand years ago. Olive trees have a propensity for warm, subtropical climates with dry rocky limestone soil making the Greek peninsula and its islands a perfect spot for them to thrive. This was very apparent not only on our drive from Athens to Agrinio but in all of our stops in Greece. There were thousands upon thousands of olive tress no matter where we were.
Olives are a dupe or stone fruit with a flesh that surrounds a pit with a seed inside. Oil makes up about 30% of the outer flesh (which when the olives are put through a press is extracted). Throughout the world, there are hundreds of olive varieties. Olives come in many different colors from dark black to a light green depending on the stage of ripeness when harvested. Olives are a bitter fruit so to make them more palatable, they are put through a curing process and so you usually find olives packed in brine.
Types of Greek Olives
There are many types of olives throughout the world. In Greece, there are three main types of olives.
Konservolia Olives These olives can be found in many areas of Greece such as Volos, Amfissa and where we traveled to, Agrinio. They usually take the name of the orgin they came from. Production of these olives covers about 50% of the Greek olive oil production. According to their degree of maturity when harvested, they can be green, blond or black and have a fruity and tangy taste.
Kalamata Olives These olives are grown in the southern region of Greece called Kalamata which produces ~15-25% of Greek olives. The olives are reasonably large and have a characteristic shape that is cylindrical with an intense black color and tip at the end. The intense color is due to the specific type of tree having larger leaves therefore absorbing more sunshine. They tend to be more bitter than the canned black olives we are more familiar with but are brined in water, salt and red wine vinegar which tames the taste and softens the flesh.
Chalkidiki Olives These olives are mainly grown in northern Greece in an area called Chalkidiki and accounts for ~10-20% of Greek olive production. Chalkidiki olives are gathered one to two months after when green olives would be gathered so that the olive can reach its peak maturity.
Nutrition Benefits of Olives
Oleic Acid The main fat found in olives and olive oil is oleic acid. This is a monounsaturated fatty acid and is considered one of the “Good” fats. With recent knowledge proving that it’s not how much fat you consume but what type of fat you consume, these monounsaturated fats have become highly popular. This type of fat is not only found in olives and its oils, but also in other plant-based fats such as the avocado. Studies have shown that oleic acid may help regulate blood cholesterol levels and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation therefore protecting your heart. For more information on the different types of fat and how this healthy fat can be introduced into your diet, check out my previous post on the different types of fat and their health characteristics. In addition to the heart healthy benefits, Oleic acid is being studied in the prevention of cancer.
Calcium Olives are a good source of calcium. Calcium is a major building block of our bones and important for preventing osteoporosis, a disease characterized by decreased bone mass and bone quality that can lead to an increased risk of fractures, especially as we age. These Mediterranean countries have a lower rate of osteoporosis than other European countries and it is speculated that this is due to the calcium content in olives. In addition to the calcium content, the phytonutrient hydroxytyrosol is being studied as another component that may prevent bone loss and osteopeorosis.
Antioxidants As we know, antioxidants have been shown to reduce risk of chronic illnesses due to reduction of inflammation and prevention of oxidation of healthy body tissues. Olives and olive oil have many phytonutrients, many of which are powerful antioxidants. Some of the antioxidants found in olive oil are vitamin E, Oleuropein, Hydroxytrosol, Tyrosol, Oleanolic acid and Quercetin. These antioxidants are associated with prevention of cancer and heart disease and have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
Iron Iron is needed for healthy red blood cell production and allowing the body to transport oxygen efficiently. Whereas iron consumption is often associated with animal products, specifically red meats. Olives can be a good source of plant-based iron. Plant based iron is better absorbed when paired with vitamin C, so topping your salads with fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C content with olives and olive oil can help.
Sodium Although the body does need salt for electrolyte balance, some people may be “salt sensitive” and must reduce the amount of sodium in their diets. Olives are high in salt as they are packaged in a brine solution. If you are concerned with the salt content, you can either consume your nutrient packed olives in the form of oil, where no salt is added, or you can rinse your cured olives in cold tap water and let them soak overnight. This will help remove some of the sodium so you can enjoy them!