` Formidable Fat: The Plant-Based Olive Oil Diet - Olive Oil Times

Formidable Fat: The Plant-Based Olive Oil Diet

May. 13, 2014
Vanessa Stasio

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For Brown University researcher and Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine Dr. Mary Flynn, the devel­op­ment and advo­cacy of a plant-based, olive oil diet was at one time con­sid­ered out­ra­geous. In the 1990s when the notion of con­sum­ing low-fat and fat-free foods for health was gain­ing wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity, Flynn, who is also a nutri­tion­ist at The Miriam Hospital, was a vocal dis­si­dent. She openly expressed her con­cerns that this eat­ing pat­tern was largely unsup­ported by sound sci­ence, even though many oth­ers in her field opposed her views. I know that peo­ple in the nutri­tion com­mu­nity thought I was a near heretic,” Flynn says.

Mary Flynn

Flynn had always had an inter­est in dietary guide­lines and how var­i­ous diet pat­terns impact weight and dis­ease risk. She was espe­cially intrigued after hav­ing read the Seven Countries Study in the mid-1980s that demon­strated notable car­dio­vas­cu­lar ben­e­fits from what is now widely known as the Mediterranean Diet, in which indi­vid­u­als con­sume con­sid­er­able amounts of healthy fats, espe­cially olive oil. Flynn had also spent time ana­lyz­ing the lit­er­a­ture behind dietary guide­lines and rec­om­men­da­tions and was astounded” by the lack of evi­dence sup­port­ing the health claims made by pro­po­nents of low-fat diets. She went on to co-author a book, Low-Fat Lies (Lifeline Press, 1999), draw­ing on the sci­en­tific evi­dence reveal­ing the numer­ous prob­lems with extremely low-fat diets and demon­strat­ing the pos­i­tive effects of a more Mediterranean-style eat­ing pat­tern.

From this foun­da­tion, Flynn’s plant-based olive oil (PBOO) diet was born. She deter­mined its com­po­nents based on val­i­dated research exam­in­ing food and chronic dis­eases. The cor­ner­stone foods of the diet are extra vir­gin olive oil, veg­eta­bles (with par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on those with deep color and those from the cru­cif­er­ous fam­ily), and starches/grains (ide­ally those that are whole), with min­i­mal ani­mal pro­tein. Flynn was ini­tially curi­ous as to whether or not her diet would aid in weight loss. She hypoth­e­sized that as long as calo­ries were con­trolled (~1500 calo­ries per day for women, ~1800 – 2000 calo­rie per day for men), hav­ing healthy fats at every meal, in the form of nuts at break­fast and extra vir­gin olive oil at lunch and din­ner, along with veg­etable-heavy lunches and din­ners, would help indi­vid­u­als feel more sati­ated and help them lose weight. Overall, those who fol­low her diet eat four to five serv­ings of fat daily, most of which is extra vir­gin olive oil.

She went on to research whether a plant-based olive oil diet would improve risk fac­tors for chronic dis­ease, includ­ing breast and prostate can­cers, rel­a­tive to a lower fat diet. In one major study of 44 women with breast can­cer, par­tic­i­pants were assigned either a con­ven­tional diet where less than 30 per­cent of calo­ries came from fat or a plant-based olive oil diet. The women fol­lowed the diets for eight weeks of weight loss and then could choose which they wanted to con­tinue on for six months of fol­low-up. Somewhat sur­pris­ingly to Flynn, a strong major­ity of the women chose her diet, say­ing that the meals tasted bet­ter, were easy to pre­pare, inex­pen­sive, and could be used both for every­day eat­ing and when enter­tain­ing. Moreover, those who have tried to adopt the plant-based olive diet in both research and out­pa­tient set­tings have men­tioned feel­ing bet­ter after just one day fol­low­ing it, which is a pow­er­ful moti­va­tor for last­ing behav­ior change.

As the tide began to turn in the early 2000s and the claims for low-fat diets grew more dubi­ous, new dietary cul­prits were called into ques­tion, such as refined car­bo­hy­drates and gluten. Meanwhile, more research emerged explor­ing the ben­e­fits of diets rich in healthy fats. These days, Flynn is noted for seem­ingly hav­ing known before oth­ers that low-fat diets were not opti­mal for health. I con­stantly hear from peo­ple now How did you know low-fat diets were unhealthy?’ ” She laughs this off remark­ing that she would sim­ply always read the ref­er­ences sup­port­ing dietary guide­lines and was a crit­i­cal reviewer of the evi­dence. I con­stantly tell my stu­dents to not take dietary guide­lines at face value; look into the evi­dence.”

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Now that Flynn’s diet has demon­strated accep­tance and encour­ag­ing results among sev­eral dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions, she feels that its poten­tial is even greater than she had first fath­omed. The finan­cial acces­si­bil­ity of a plant-based olive oil diet is one of its most sig­nif­i­cant fea­tures, since it is often assumed that such an eat­ing pat­tern will inher­ently be pricier than a more tra­di­tional stan­dard American diet. Flynn remarks, When some­one says that olive oil is expen­sive, I point out that they are com­par­ing olive oil pric­ing to veg­etable oil, which I do not think is a fair com­par­i­son.” She goes on to note that since ani­mal prod­ucts often com­prise the lion’s share of one’s food bud­get, pur­chas­ing less meat while adding more olive oil typ­i­cally results in a decrease in over­all food costs. This point is espe­cially impor­tant for Flynn’s cur­rent work with food pantry clients and her future plans to bring the diet to low-income pop­u­la­tions to improve their risk fac­tors for chronic dis­eases.

When asked about the impact of impor­ta­tion of adul­ter­ated olive oils on her work, Flynn said that it was a huge con­cern.” She real­ized that the ubiq­uity of poor-qual­ity olive oils likely explains why she did not always get con­sis­tent results with her patients. She feels that a people’s rev­o­lu­tion” is needed to have an impact on the cor­rup­tion issues in the olive oil world and aims to improve oth­ers’ knowl­edge and aware­ness of the adul­ter­ation prob­lem by spread­ing the word.

What’s next for Flynn? With teach­ing, research, clin­i­cal and non-profit work on her plate, she still feels that there is much left to learn about the appli­ca­tion of a plant-based diet that includes high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil. Securing fund­ing remains chal­leng­ing, which Flynn attrib­utes in large part due to the dis­mal fail­ure” of low-fat diet research. She also is con­fi­dent in the poten­tial of using food as med­i­cine” to improve risk fac­tors for chronic dis­eases among low-income groups, which offers dual ben­e­fits of improv­ing lives as well as decreas­ing health care costs. She is also curi­ous about the fresh­ness of olive oil vis-à-vis its pro­vi­sion of health ben­e­fits and whether there is a cut­off at which these ben­e­fits begin to decline.

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