For even the casual reader of redOrbit.com, news of the benefits of adopting the so-called Mediterranean diet is nothing new. Most notably, our own Michael Harper has written some compelling articles on how this diet can lower your stroke risk and, in one very clever insurance scheme in South Africa, assist you in thinning your waistline while maintaining a plumped pocketbook.
Additionally, the introduction of olive oil into your diet, it has been determined, aids you in feeling fuller longer. The German study that introduced this idea compared olive oil to lard, butterfat and rapeseed oil and found the aroma compounds within olive oil were effective at providing a sense of satiety unmatched by the other three.
Their findings, published in the March issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, are believed to be the first to show how placing importance on an increase in plant-based meals can lead to a decrease in food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of access to nutritional foods for at least some days or some meals for members of a household.
The 34-week study, conducted by Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, and Andrew Schiff, PhD, recruited individuals to participate in an introductory six-week cooking program followed by the home implementation of simple, plant-based recipes. Their findings showed adherence to the study´s aims resulted in a decrease in total food spending, an increase in the purchase of healthier food items and an increase in their overall food security.
Flynn, a research dietician at The Miriam Hospital, which is associated with Brown University, designed the study with Schiff who is the chief executive officer at RIFoodBank. The 34-week study was derived from previous research conducted by Flynn on a plant-based diet she developed that emphasizes cooking with olive oil, following a Mediterranean diet pattern.
“I had a number of people — mainly women from my breast cancer weight loss study — say how inexpensive a Mediterranean-style diet was, so I approached the food bank about designing a study using food pantry items for the recipes,” says Flynn.
Most people trying to put together a well rounded menu for their household spend the bulk of their budget on meats, poultry and seafood. These items, especially the recommended lower-fat versions, tend to be the most expensive items one will see on their grocery store receipt. Families of a lower socioeconomic status will typically purchase these items first leaving little, if anything, left in the budget for healthier fruits and vegetables.
Flynn comments, however, if the focus of the shopper can be changed to eliminate foods not needed to improve health from the shopping list, a healthy diet can be quite economical. Some foods scratched off the list include meats, snacks, desserts and carbonated beverages.
For the study, Flynn and Schiff recruited 83 clients from emergency food pantries and low-income housing sites. At the end of the 34 week study, 63 of the recruited individuals had completed the diet protocol and six month follow-up requirement.
The first six weeks of the study, as noted above, consisted of cooking classes where instructors prepared quick and easy plant-based recipes that incorporated ingredients like olive oil, whole grain pasta, brown rice and fruits and vegetables. The participant´s progress was tracked for six months after the culmination of the cooking program.
While participants were not required to assist in the preparation during the classes, the staff discussed, in limited detail, the benefits of some of the individual ingredients and encouraged the class to seek out those items in their own food pantry. No additional nutrition or food information was provided to the study participants.
One particular benefit for those attending the six-week cooking class was that they were provided with groceries that contained most of the ingredients discussed by the class facilitators. The allotted ingredients provided to the participants would allow them to make three of the discussed recipes for their family members.
Once the classes were over, the researchers collected grocery receipts throughout the remainder of the study. Analysis of these receipts showed a significant decrease in overall purchases of meats, carbonated beverages, desserts and snacks. This was particularly interesting to the research team as they never offered instruction to the participants to avoid purchasing these items.
Further review of the receipts showed each household enjoyed an increase in the total number of different fruits and vegetables consumed each month.
“Not only did study participants cut their food spending by more than half, saving nearly $40 per week, we also found that the reliance on a food pantry decreased as well, from 68 percent at the start of the study to 54 percent, demonstrating a clear decline in food insecurity,” Flynn says.
The research team also noted following a plant-based diet resulted in unexpected health benefits for the study participants. Nearly one half of all participants presented a loss in weight. This, according to Flynn, was not a study objective. Additionally, there was an overall decrease in the body mass index (BMI) of the study participants.
“Our results also suggest that including a few plant-based meals per week is an attainable goal that will not only improve their health and diet, but also lower their food costs,” concludes Flynn in a statement.
Diet fads, since the very first one in the late 1800s, come and go. However, each successive research study into plant-based and Mediterranean-styled diets is showing how the benefits to your overall health probably shouldn´t be ignored. And if that wasn´t enough of a nudge you might need to adopt this diet, it turns out its healthier for your wallet, as well.