Reviewed by Harriet
When I was a small child my mother, who spent a lot of time in France and loved French cooking, used to have to go to the chemist to buy olive oil, which was sold in small bottles, presumably to be used for some medicinal purpose. Things have moved on a lot and the choice of types and brands on sale in your local supermarket can be breathtaking and confusing. Most of us probably use it in salad dressings or to cook our mediterranean dishes. But how many of us now stop to think about its role in our nutrition and health?
The authors of The Olive Oil Diet, Dr Simon Poole and food writer Judy Ridgway, don’t want us to stop using it for those culinary purposes – indeed, a good chunk of this attractive book is given over to recipes and meal suggestions. But there’s a serious purpose behind it too – we are told, for example, that ‘two tablespoons of olive oil a day can halve your risk of heart disease and help sustain weight loss’, and there are clearly many other benefits, which the first part of the book outlines in detail.
The Introduction sets out to dispose of the idea that a low-fat diet is essential for good health. Simon Poole points towards a number of studies that have shown that the countries with a diet high in olive oil have the greatest number of people with good health and high longevity. Indeed, an important study undertaken with over 7000 people with high risk of heart disease was abandoned when it became clear that the control group not using olive oil were actually endangering their health. Dr Poole explains the differences between various kinds of fats, showing that the seed oils so commonly used in cooking may have a pro-inflammatory effect which actually promotes heart problems. Olive oil, conversely, has a high ratio of antioxidents, which can be shown to be anti-inflammatory. This has a beneficial effect not only on stomach problems such as colitis, but also on diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure, strokes, dementia and more.
Following a very thorough and readable section of health benefits, the books goes on first to explain the different grades of oil available (and touches on the important question of fakes), before explaining the growth, culture and manufacture of olive oil. Then there’s a chapter on how to buy the best and healthiest oils (price is not always an indicator of quality, but it does mean something) and finally an overview of the different methods of using, or cooking with, olive oil. Here, I was happy to see, a prevalent belief is confronted and disposed of – many people think it is not safe to heat olive oil for frying, which according to Dr Poole is a myth counteracted by several important research studies.
Part Three of the book moves on to the diet itself, and here the co-author, nutritionist Judy Ridgway, takes over the story. There’s a helpful survey of the ‘Seven Pillars of the Olive Oil Diet’, healthy foods which complement the oil itself, followed by simple cooking and shopping suggestions. The final section of the book is devoted to the recipes themselves. Most of the recipes are mediterranean in origin, not really surprising as that’s where olive oil is such a primary ingredient. In addition to the usual categories – snacks, starters, main courses – I was interested to find a substantial section on Desserts, Cakes and Biscuits, as I’d always thought of olive oil as a savoury ingredient. But how about chocolate icing, simply made from melted dark chocolate mixed with extra virgin olive oil? Or maybe you fancy Profiteroles with Strawberry Cream Filling (said to be indistinguishable from those made with butter)? There are lots more besides, but don’t expect a sugar-fest – these recipes are all sugar-free, apart from the natural simple sugars found in fruits.
I really learned a lot from this book – I’m very fond of olive oil but haven’t been using it in the quantities recommended here. The authors have convinced me that that should change and I’m looking forward to trying some of their recommendations and recipes. I liked the way the book is laid out, with each chapter having a helpful summary of its main points at the end. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to improve their health and enjoy delicious eating at the same time.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Dr Simon Poole and Judy Ridgway, The Olive Oil Diet (Robinson, 2016). 978-1472138460, 294pp., paperback.
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