I have lived in Athens for the last six months. I have eaten mountains of feta cheese and consumed whole shoals of fish. I have downed litres of red wine and gone clucking mad for eggs. I have had my salads so slathered in oily dressing that I feel like a tanker spill.
I have also lost a stone.
Admittedly, this isn’t a vast amount. Friends who have done the 5:2, Atkins or Viva Mayr diets have shed that amount — the holy 14 pounds — in more like two months than six. But, invariably, the weight comes back on the second their intensive regime lapses. They are also miserable and ravenously hungry, with bad breath and grey skin. In Greece my skin was completely clear and a lovely café crème shade; my hair was thicker; I bounced out of bed in the morning full of energy. Best of all, I wasn’t hungry.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet have long been known about. The Seven Countries Study was the first to evaluate the links between diet, lifestyle and the risk of heart attack. From 1958 to 1970, the study observed men living in countries as diverse as Finland, Japan, Greece and America. Dr Ancel Keys and his team found that countries with a varied diet based on monounsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables and legumes had a lower risk of heart disease than countries whose diets were based on wheat, meat and sugar. And the best of the bunch? Crete, where 40 per cent of the diet came from healthy fats.
It turns out, though, that the Mediterranean diet isn’t just good for your heart: it’s good for your gut, too. Increasingly studies are pointing towards the importance of a diverse microbe culture — otherwise known as ‘good bacteria’ — in the gut as the key to health. Giulia Enders’s 2014 bestseller Gut posited links between gut health and everything from inflammation to Alzheimer’s. The revolting phrase ‘gut flora’ is now thrown around with abandon at every Notting Hill dinner party.
Many of us have been guzzling probiotic yoghurt drinks for years, but more recently studies have shown that such drinks are, at best, delivering fewer ‘good bacteria’ than they advertise and are, at worst, just sugary nonsense. Extra virgin olive oil and cheese, on the other hand, encourage diverse gut microbes. And multiculturism is as right-on internally as it is everywhere else. There is even a growing body of evidence that it even keeps you slim, too. So instead of downing a yoghurt drink in the morning we should be slathering our salads with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling nuts and seeds liberally over our porridge.
If you’re more concerned about your brain than your body: well, olive oil helps with that, too. A study by Columbia University, published last month in Neurology, demonstrated that those living on a Mediterranean diet have more active and alert brains. In fact, the diet reduces the amount the brain usually shrinks over time by five years.
So next lunch time consider what you eat. Half an avocado with a drizzle of oil may have more calories than a sushi platter. But while the latter is empty white-rice calories and minimal protein, the former will keep your brain from shrinking and help your gut to flourish. All hail olive oil: the world’s oldest newest superfood.