Is It Possible to Fight Fat With Fat?

Olive OilIt’s not news that diabetes is on the rise. According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes, and about 2 million more are diagnosed every year.

It is also no surprise to learn that obesity has become an epidemic in the United States. According to a 2010 analysis from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 34 percent of Americans are obese (have a BMI for 30 or greater).[1] And when you factor in those who are overweight (BMI greater than 25), the percentage balloons up to 68 percent. That means that two out of every three Americans is carrying significantly more weight than is healthy.

However, the weight per se is not the issue. It’s the health conditions related to the weight that pose the real problem, especially when it comes to diabetes. Really, it’s a common cause-and-effect issue. Obesity leads to metabolic syndrome, which leads to diabetes. Therefore, one could surmise that you could reduce your risk for diabetes if you maintained a healthy weight.

But what’s the best way to do that? This has been the subject of great debate, not to mention late-night infomercials, Internet sales pitches, celebrity programs and books, and even a couple of reality television shows.

But when it comes to hard science, it’s tough to beat the Mediterranean diet for weight loss, weight maintenance and overall health. This is why a group of Italian researchers decided to review the crème-de-la-crème of research on a Mediterranean diet that is rich in olive oil and its relationship to diabetes.[2]

Understanding the Mediterranean Diet

When someone talks about a Mediterranean diet, they are often talking about the diet of people living around the Mediterranean Sea. This includes cuisine from countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. While these countries are wildly different in terms of culture and customs, basic dietary staples tend to include:

  • Olive and olive oil
  • Fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Limited meats
  • Cheeses and/or yogurt
  • Very limited sweets/sugar
  • Red wine

Of these, olives and olive oil are the most typical, regardless of where in the Mediterranean you are. And olive oil itself is a health powerhouse.

Olive oil’s benefits have long been touted for everything from its antioxidant properties to its anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits. And, as it turns out, anti-diabetic and anti-obesity properties as well!

The Mediterranean Diet and Obesity

In the past, nutritional advice for those fighting the battle of the bulge has been to avoid all dietary fat, especially animal fat, and replace it with carbohydrates. We now know that this is NOT what you should do.

While most people agreed that it was good to avoid saturated fats, what was unclear was if saturated fat should be replaced by monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) or carbohydrates. This was answered, indirectly, by the Women’s Health Initiative study, which found that a high-carbohydrate diet did not protect against cardiovascular disease.[3]

Interestingly, another prospective study found that increasing olive oil use was not associated with weight gain.[4] Moreover, a separate study of nearly half a million people from Europe found that eating a Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower waist circumference.[5] Lastly, yet another study found that those people who exhibited a high adherence to a Mediterranean diet were 10 percent less likely to become overweight or obese.[6]

Based on these studies, as well as several others they examined, the researchers concluded that a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil does not contribute to obesity and may, in fact, even help protect against it.

The Mediterranean Diet and Diabetes

The researchers then looked at a variety of studies that explored the role of diet for both metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is actually a combination of factors that occur at the same time. These include:

  • Excess fat around the abdomen
  • High triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance
  • Inflammation
  • Blood clotting tendencies

Metabolic syndrome is often a warning bell for type 2 diabetes, which is defined as excess levels of sugar in the blood. Diet can, and usually does, play a significant role in both metabolic syndrome and diabetes. In fact, one study found that your typical Western, American-type diet can contribute to metabolic syndrome, while a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, grains and low-fat dairy (much like the Mediterranean diet) protects against metabolic syndrome.[7]

A second study found that when people incorporated certain elements of the Mediterranean diet, such as olives, beans and red wine, they had lower incidence of metabolic syndrome.[8]

On the diabetes front, two prospective studies from southern Europe found that the closer people followed the Mediterranean diet, the lower the incidence of diabetes.[9] Conversely, the Women’s Health Initiative found that a low-fat diet was not effective at lowering a person’s risk for the disease.[10]

Additionally, a meta analysis of several diet-related studies found that diets that had olive oil as their main source of monounsaturated fats promoted insulin sensitivity.[11]

Based on these studies, as well as a few others, researchers concluded, “There is good scientific support for [monounsaturated fat] diets, especially those based on olive oil, as an alternative approach to low-fat diets for the medicinal nutritional therapy in diabetes.”

How Going Mediterranean Protects You

As we stated earlier, olive oil has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, while also possessing antioxidant benefits. As such, several studies have shown that eating a diet rich in olive oil, such as a Mediterranean diet, can protect against inflammation and its metabolic complications.[12]

In fact, one particular study found that the anti-inflammatory effect was more pronounced in people eating a Mediterranean diet for three months versus those eating a low-fat diet.[13] Specifically, the Mediterranean group had lower levels of several inflammation markers, such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6.

Good Fat to Lose Fat

After all is said and done, to effectively manage your weight and lower your risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes, Mediterranean is the way to go. Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables, lots of fish and whole grains, and the occasional intake of wild, grass-fed beef or free-range chicken, as well as low-fat dairy. And when it comes to fats, olives, olive oil and raw nuts are the keys to great health and optimal weight. 


[1] Flegal, KM et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among U.S. adults, 1999-2008. JAMA. 2010 Jan 13;303(3):235-41.

[2] Perez-Martinez, P et al. Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil and obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus. Curr Pharm Des. 2011;17:769-77.

[3] Howard, BV et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006;295:655-66.

[4] Bes-Rastrollo, M et al. Olive oil consumption and weight change: the SUN prospective cohort study. Lipids 2006;41:249-56.

[5] Romaguera, D et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower abdominal adiposity in European men and women. J Nutr. 2009;139:1728-37.

[6] Romaguera, D et al. Mediterranean dietary patterns and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC-PANACEA project. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:912-21.

[7] Esmailzadeh, A et al. Dietary patterns, insulin resistance, and prevalence of the metabolic syndrome in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:910-8.

[8] Babio, N et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and risk of metabolic syndrome and its components. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2009;19:563-70.

[9] Martinez-Gonzalez, MA, et al. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of developing diabetes: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2008;336:1348-51.

[10] Tinker, LF et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of treated diabetes mellitus in postmenopausal women: the modification trial. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168:1500-11.

[11] Garg, A. High-monounsaturated-fat diets for patients with diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;67:577S-582S.

[12] Panagiotakos, DB et al. Mediterranean diet and inflammatory response in myocardial infarction survivors. Int J Epidemiol. 2009;38:856-66.

[13] Estruch, R et al. Effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on cardiovascular risk factors: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:1-11.