The secret ingredient in the Mediterranean diet.

You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet. It’s touted everywhere from morning news shows to magazine articles as one of the most healthful eating styles around, but you may not know how or why this diet — which is filled with fruits and vegetables from places like Italy, Greece and Turkey — is so good for you.

Science is only just beginning to decipher why eating some foods, skipping others or combining them in the right ways can thwart illness and ward off disease.

What does the Mediterranean diet look like?

“The Mediterranean diet includes foods and beverages native to the land for which it’s named. Rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, a variety of herbs and spices, wine, fish, seafood and olive oil, this meal plan may reduce the risk of heart disease and other inflammatory conditions like arthritis,” says Martina Cartwright, a registered dietitian.

The foundation of the diet consists of fruits like apricots, citrus, dates, figs, grapes, apples and pears; veggies like tomatoes, avocados, kale and dark green leafy spinach, onions, garlic and leeks, celery, carrots, cabbage and cucumbers; beans and legumes like chickpeas (hummus), fava beans and kidney beans; nuts like cashews and almonds; red wine (a glass a day); fish three times a week and a serving or two of low-fat dairy or yogurt each day (think Greek yogurt). Olive oil is recommended for cooking and is the main source of dietary fat in salad dressings and baking along with fats from avocado and nuts.

Why is this food regimen so healthful?

“The Mediterranean diet has been shown to significantly reduce risk for cardiovascular disease and for recurrence of cardiac events. It also reduces risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, and is associated with fewer cardiovascular- and cancer- related deaths, decreased risk of stroke and depression, improved physical functioning, and a slower rate of cognitive decline,” says Julieanna Hever, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition.”

“The mechanism for how the diet works is unclear. However, the theory is that since the diet is rich in anti-inflammatory fats (olive and fish) and antioxidants (which help with cell repair and include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and phytochemicals), it helps the body’s repair mechanisms,” Cartwright says.

A 2016 study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress backs up the heart health benefits, even among those who are already showing signs of cardiovascular disease.

Using 25,000 random adults from the Italian region of Molise, researchers found 1,197 with histories of heart disease. Those participants who adhered closely to the diet saw their death rate from any cause drop by 37 percent over the study’s seven year period. The researchers acknowledged that their study was “observational” and that further research was needed to establish a causal link.

The Molise researchers may need only to look at a 2014 study that may have unearthed a “secret ingredient” that gives the Mediterranean diet such a powerful effect on health and longevity. When the unsaturated fat in olive oil meets the naturally occurring nitrates that many Mediterranean vegetables (such as tomatoes, eggplant, garlic and leafy greens) are rich in, a special kind of molecule is produced called nitro fatty acids.

How do nitro fatty acids work?

Researchers from King’s College London and the University of California, Davis used genetically engineered mice to figure out how this biochemical process worked.

Beneficial omega-6 fats are normally broken down in the body by an enzyme, but these nitro fatty acids block the action of that enzyme. As a result, the “good fats” stay in the blood longer, where they may have a long-lasting effect.

“The Mediterranean diet may reduce inflammation and blood pressure through a unique combination of dietary fats and nitrogen-rich vegetables. When consumed together in a meal, this dynamic duo form a type of fat that may help reduce blood pressure, bad cholesterol and perhaps inflammation,” Cartwright says.

The theory is, the longer the good fats stick around, the more opportunity they have to elicit healthful benefits in the body.

Hever says she believes the benefits of the diet stem from the fact that it is plant-heavy, providing opportunities for synergy to occur, as mentioned in the research. “Synergy between phytochemicals and other nutrients in plant foods work harmoniously to enhance immune function and protect against chronic degenerative diseases,” she says.

In fact, she believes there are likely thousands of similar reactions that are the result of consuming a wide variety of plant foods.

How to make the Mediterranean diet work for you

If you want to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life, Cartwright says to start with plenty of fruits and veggies, then add some unsalted nuts, seeds and legumes to the mix. Sprinkle in plenty of antioxidant-rich spices like curry, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, turmeric and ginger. Add fatty fish two to three times a week. Switch to olive oil for cooking and homemade salad dressings. Eating whole grains plus some low-fat dairy are great ways to get started with this Mediterranean-inspired meal plan.

credit- Jennifer Nelson

Bees have trouble foraging when air pollution rises.

Bees have a laundry list of problems going against them these days. Among them is air pollution, and a new study shows just how air pollution is affecting bees’ ability to find food. By studying how changes in air chemistry affect foraging patterns of bees, researchers from Penn State illustrate that a rise in air pollution is a serious problem for pollinators.

According to PhysOrg:

Air pollutants interact with and break down plant-emitted scent molecules, which insect pollinators use to locate needed food, according to a team of researchers led by Penn State. The pollution-modified plant odors can confuse bees and, as a result, bees’ foraging time increases and pollination efficiency decreases. This happens because the chemical interactions decrease both the scent molecules’ life spans and the distances they travel.
The real kicker is that the breakdown process actually creates even more air pollutants which speeds up the breakdown.

Without bees able to find food and thus pollinate plants, not only do bee populations decline but so do many species of plants that rely on their pollination, including crops that humans rely on for food. Decreasing air pollution isn’t only for the best interest of pollinators and plants, but for our own survival as well.

Anti-aging pill could allow everyone to live over 120 years old

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León famously journeyed to the Americas in search of the Fountain of Youth. If he were still alive today, he might have been able to simply visit his pharmacist instead.

A potential anti-aging drug that is already commercially available for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, called metformin, is soon set to begin clinical trials to see if it can also expand the human life span, reports the Express.

Initial tests on some animals, such as one study of the drug’s effects on worms, suggest that humans could live healthily well into their 120s if the effects are shown to be similar. Metformin could literally be a miracle drug– the Fountain of Youth in pill form. It could change medicine in a way not seen since the discovery of antibiotics. That is, assuming the trials are a success.

Early optimism is high. Since metformin is commercially available for the treatment of diabetes, several extensive studies about its effects are already available; the hype is not merely based on a simple worm study. For instance, last year a study of more than 180,000 people showed that those being treated for diabetes with metformin lived longer than a healthy control sample. That is worth reiterating: Patients being treated for diabetes lived longer than otherwise healthy people.

Other research has shown that metformin could also help to directly treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and even cancer.

“I have been doing research into aging for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-aging drug would have been thought inconceivable,” said Gordon Lithgow of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “But there is every reason to believe it’s possible.”

The clinical trial is called Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), and it will be conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researchers are looking for 3,000 people in their 70s and 80s who either have or are at risk of having major diseases, and the trial should last from 5 to 7 years.

The drug has already been in use for over 60 years for diabetes patients, so scientists have a pretty good idea of how exactly it works. For instance, metformin is known to make our cells better oxygenated, and its easy to imagine how better oxygenated cells can have a positive effect on the body.

“We lower the risk of heart disease, somebody lives long enough to get cancer. If we reduce the risk of cancer, somebody lives long enough to get Alzheimer’s disease. We are suggesting that the time has arrived to attack them all by going after the biological process of aging,” said Stuart Jay Olshansky, one of the researchers involved in the project.

If all goes well, then age 70 could soon become the new 50. Age 100 could be the new 80, and so on. Better yet, we can age in a healthier fashion, free from many of the debilitating diseases that make living to older ages undesirable. It won’t be an immortality pill, but it might be the next closest thing.

credit: Bryan Nelson

What is genetically edited food?

The USDA says this method of tampering with a food’s genes is not the same as genetically modifying it.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “genetically edited” food until I read an NPR feature last week about genetically edited mushrooms. While it may seem like genetically edited is another way to say genetically modified, editing is not the same as modifying, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have had their genes altered in some way. Genetically modified salmon, for instance, has had its genes modified to grow faster than natural salmon. GMO salmon can grow to full size in 18 months. Non-GMO salmon take three years to grow to full size. The purpose of genetically modified food, whether it’s an animal or plant, is to introduce a new, desirable trait to the organism. (And yes, what’s desirable depends on who you talk to.)

A genetically edited organism does not have a gene altered to introduce a new trait. Instead, it has a gene taken away using a four-year-old technology called CRISPR. In the case of the mushroom mentioned earlier, Yinong Yang, a Penn State researcher, snipped out “a tiny piece of DNA from one particular gene in a white button mushroom,” NPR reports. With that gene gone, the mushroom produces less of the enzyme polyphenol oxidase, making the mushroom brown more slowly. An undesirable trait was removed from the organism.

Yang asked the USDA if his genetically edited mushrooms would be regulated as a GMO. The government agency said since no new DNA was introduced, and there is no evidence the edited white button mushrooms would bring any problems with weeds or become a pest to other plants, the USDA does not need to regulate them.

I’ve seen several headlines since the NPR report last week that claim genetically edited foods will not be regulated. That’s inaccurate. The USDA said it would not regulate these mushrooms, but the agency ended the letter to Yang with the following statement: “Please be advised that your white button mushroom variety described in your letter may still be subject to other regulatory authorities such as the FDA or EPA.”

Whether some form of government regulation will happen for genetically edited foods hasn’t been decided. This mushroom is the first food created using this technique, according to The Washington Post. The company that paid for the mushroom research has no immediate plans to sell the mushrooms. There’s a lot more work and government scrutiny before a genetically edited food comes on the market — regulated or not.

At least, let’s hope much more government scrutiny will be done on genetic editing for food. CRISPR can be used for more than simply keeping fruits and vegetables from browning quickly. The method is also being considered as a way to remove undesirable traits in human beings, like the ability to inherit a devastating disease — something that should come only after years of testing for safety and side effects, and necessary regulations.

credit: Robin Shreeves

Why lack of sleep gives you the munchies

Looking for a better way to lose weight? Maybe it’s time to stop counting calories and start counting sheep. A new study has found a link between poor sleep and the marijuana-like “munchie” cravings that may be causing Americans to pack on the pounds.

The study, published recently in the journal Sleep, was a small but intense experiment that carefully controlled the sleep and diet of 14 20-somethings who agreed to spend several days at the University of Chicago’s sleep lab. On some nights, participants were allowed to sleep for 8.5 hours, while on others they were only allowed to snooze for 4.5 hours. Each day, the participants were given a large meal at 3 p.m. and allowed to snack from then until their next meal at 7 p.m.

Researchers found that all of the participants binged at that afternoon meal, consuming roughly 90 percent of their caloric needs at one sitting. But it was the participants who were deprived of sleep who continued to snack right up until their next meal, consuming as many as 1,000 additional calories, primarily from low-nutrient, high-reward foods (i.e. junk food.)

Blood tests revealed that the sleep-deprived participants had higher levels of a chemical called endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) in their bloodstream than those who got a full night’s sleep. 2-AG is a chemical made in the brain that resembles chemicals found in marijuana. It affects pain, pleasure and appetite and has been linked to the “munchies” that pot smokers report feeling after getting high.

Typically, blood levels of 2-AG bottom out overnight but slowly build throughout the day before peaking in the late afternoon and early evening. For the sleep-deprived volunteers, 2-AG levels rose higher than they did for their well-rested peers and stayed high through the evening. This is the same period in which sleep-restricted participants noted feeling hungrier and having a stronger desire to eat. When given snacks at this time, they ate nearly twice as much fat as when they had slept for eight hours.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of Americans are sleep deprived, defined as getting less than seven hours of sleep each night. Guess how many Americans are also considered obese? One-third.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Of course, diet and exercise are critical components for maintaining a healthy weight. But as this research points out, a good night’s sleep may play an even bigger role in the weight loss equation than previously thought.

Bottom line: If you’re trying to lose weight, get to bed at a reasonable hour. You’ll be more likely to resist that late afternoon junk food binge if you’re not fighting the sleep-deprivation munchies.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

9 ways that dogs tell you they love you

Dogs have lived alongside us for thousands of years, earning the reputation as “man’s best friend” for good reason. But while some people may be quick to dismiss a dog’s devotion as simply a relationship based on need, experts say that’s just not true.

“Dogs have developed the strongest ability of all animals on Earth to form affectionate bonds with humans,” says Dr. Frank McMillan D.V.M., director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society, an organization helping adopters find loving companions. “Dogs don’t just love us — they need us, but not just for food and physical care. They need us emotionally. This is why the attachment bond a dog feels for his human is one of deep devotion and is, as has been often stated, unconditional.”

But how exactly does a dog say, “I love you”? Read on to find out.

Your dog wants to be close to you.

If your dog is always in your lap, leaning against you or following you room to room, it’s clear your pooch is attached to you.

“A dog’s affection is most evident in their desire to be physically close to you. This can sometimes appear to be a clinginess, and it isn’t always easy to distinguish healthy positive clinginess from insecurity, but in both cases your dog is deeply attached to you,” McMillan says.

Your dog gazes into your eyes.

When you and your pup share a long look, your dog is “hugging you with his eyes,” according to Brian Hare, a professor at Duke University who studies canine cognition, and research shows that this “hug” has a profound effect on both man and animal.

When scientists at Japan’s Azabu University took urine samples from dogs and their owners before and after 30 minutes of interacting, they found that the pairs that spent the most time gazing into each others’ eyes showed significantly higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants. “It’s an incredible finding that suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system,” Hare told Science.

Does your pup jump up, wag his tail and barely seem able to contain contain his excitement when you arrive home? If so, that’s a sure sign of affection.

“This becomes even more obvious when your dog learns, like Pavlov’s dogs, that some sound signals your upcoming arrival, like the garage opener or sound of your car, and they show excitement upon hearing that sound,” McMillan says.

Your dog sleeps with you.

Dogs are pack animals that often huddle together at night for warmth and protection, so when your dog snuggles up with you, it means he considers you to be part of the family. And these canine cuddles may even help you get a better night’s sleep.

You are your dog’s safe haven.

“Much affection in animals and humans is based on how much you can be relied on as a source of comfort and support in scary situations,” McMillan says. “If your dog seeks your comfort during thunderstorms, car rides, vet visits or other frightening occurrences, then you are seeing another aspect of her attachment bond to you.”

Your dog ‘reads’ you and reacts accordingly.

A close bond with your dog may enable him to sense your mood and respond with affection. “Many dogs who sense that you are upset or not feeling well will demonstrate their affection by spending even more time by your side. They might give you licks or rest their head or paws on some part of your body,” McMillan says.

If you’ve ever yawned after witnessing another person’s yawn, you’re aware how contagious the act can be. This contagious yawning is unique to only a few species, and man’s best friend is one of them.

Researchers have even found that not only are dogs more likely to yawn after watching familiar people yawn, but also that dogs will yawn when hearing only the sound of a loved one’s yawn. So if your canine companion yawns in response to your yawns, odds are good that his affection for you enables him to empathize with you.

Your dog focuses on you.

It’s not unusual for dogs to delight in positive attention from virtually anyone, but just because your pooch loves on everyone, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you most. Pay attention to how your dog acts when in a room full of people. If he stays focused on you or ignores others while awaiting your return, you know you hold a special place in your dog’s heart.

Your dog forgives you.

“Part of the affectionate feelings your dog has for you shows up in their willingness to forgive you for things you do that make them feel bad, such as raising your voice, or misplacing your frustration on your dog by ignoring them,” McMillan says. “Forgiveness is your dog’s attempt to maintain the loving bond they share with you.”

However, even if your canine best friend doesn’t show affection in these ways, it certainly doesn’t mean your pooch doesn’t love you. Just as some people can care deeply without expressing their feelings, so can your pup.

“Be sure not to go through the list above and think that because your dog shows very few or even none of these things, he or she doesn’t love you. Odds are, love is very much there. After all, we’re talking about a dog here,” McMillan says.

And how can you show your dog some love? Engage in playtime, take a long walk, bake some yummy dog treats, or give your pup a homemade toy. Above all, McMillan says the best thing you can do is simply give your dog more of you because that’s what man’s best friend wants most of all.

credit:Laura Moss

Lentil meatball with lemon-pecan pesto sauce

PREP TIME
20 minutes
TOTAL TIME
40 minutes
YIELD
4-6 servings (about 25 meatballs)
EQUIPMENT
Soup pot Cutting board Kitchen knife Mixing bowls Measuring cups and spoons Food processor or blender Baking sheet Parchment paper
INGREDIENTS
1 cup red lentils
2 cups water
2 eggs
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup light ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2-3 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pecans
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup packed basil leaves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
COOKING DIRECTIONS
In a soup pot, combine the lentils and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender and have absorbed all the water. Slightly mash the lentils with a fork until they are a chunky texture. Set them aside to cool.
In a food processor, combine the pecans, lemon zest, lemon juice and salt. Blend until fairly smooth. Add in the basil leaves, olive oil and 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese. Blend until smooth, adding in a little more olive oil if needed to get a sauce-like consistency.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled lentils, eggs, olive oil, ricotta cheese, fennel seeds, parsley, thyme leaves, red pepper flakes, paprika, salt and pepper. Stir to thoroughly combine. Add in the bread crumbs, and stir until combined.
Take a spoonful of the mixture and roll a 1-inch round ball in your hands. The mix should be quite moist but hold together well. If it doesn’t hold together or is runny, add in a few more bread crumbs (only a little at a time) until the mixture holds together but is still very moist.
Place the 1-inch balls onto a baking sheet, spaced a little distance apart so they aren’t touching. Place the sheet on the center rack of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the lentil balls, then bake 10 minutes more. Remove from the oven.
Plate the lentil meatballs with the pesto sauce drizzled over the top, and a little extra lemon zest as garnish. Serve and enjoy!
As an alternative preparation idea, you can keep the Parmesan cheese out of the mixture, and instead spread the cheese on a plate or tray. After rolling the lentil mixture into balls, roll the balls over the grated cheese to create a crust. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the lentil balls every 5 minutes to make sure the cheesy crust is evenly browned and crispy.

Credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

 

Amazing benefits of Malaysion palm oil

Every few years we rediscover a new, healthier cooking oil. About 20 years ago, we abandoned vegetable for canola, and 10 years back we forsook canola for olive. Today many people tout coconut or avocado oil for their healthy cooking needs. Waiting in the wings? Malaysian palm fruit oil.

Red palm oil, as it’s also called, is produced in several areas, including Malaysia, West Africa and Ecuador. It’s derived from the fruit of the oil palm, not to be confused with palm kernel oil. Ancient Egyptians regarded the palm fruit oil as sacred healing oil. The dark red oil is about 50 percent saturated and 40 percent oleic acid, an unsaturated fat present in higher quantities in olive oil and believed to be partially responsible for its health benefits.

A tablespoon of red palm oil is about 130 calories, similar to other oils, but it’s loaded with carotenes, like beta-carotene and lycopene.

These are the same antioxidants that give tomatoes and carrots their deep color. The tropical oil may have other benefits as well. “Malaysian palm fruit oil is a rich source of beta carotene (much more than carrots and tomatoes), vitamin E and may have benefits for patients with breast cancer, fatty liver disease, and more,” says Dr. Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, author of “Living Skinny in Fat Genes.”

What’s the hubbub about?

Unlike other oils, Malaysian palm fruit oil doesn’t lose its nutritional value when it’s cooked in high heat. It can be cooked at a higher temperature than butter, corn oil or virgin olive oil. Plus, most oils only keep for four to six months after they’re opened. (Olive oil can last for a year, if refrigerated.) Malaysian palm fruit oil can be stored at room temperature for 12 months without going rancid.

The oil is cholesterol-free and is touted as heart-healthy. Preliminary studies show that adding palm oil to your diet may help remove plaque build-up in arteries. What’s more, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that a natural form of vitamin E called alpha tocotrienol, which is the form found in in red palm fruit oil, can help reduce the effects of stroke by 50 percent.

And since the oil is helpful in fighting inflammation, the core of many diseases, palm oil may have health benefits in fighting illnesses like osteoporosis, asthma, cataracts, macular degeneration, arthritis and premature aging.

Adding high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory Malaysian red palm oil palm oil to your diet may even reduce cholesterol and keep your blood pressure in check, too.

One review published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, found Carotino and other red palm oils to be effective for treating vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. (Carotino is a specific blend of canola oil and red palm fruit oil.) Still, much more research is needed.

Raw, unrefined palm oil is a deep reddish color and may have a pungent taste of olives and saffron and smell flowery while the refined, processed version is colorless and tasteless. You should be able to find both versions in health food stores. The red-colored oil is the one with possible health benefits. Raw, unrefined oil retains its vitamins and antioxidants and may lend a zesty flavor to foods sautéed in it.

Buying sustainable oil

To reduce the environmental impact of deforestation by palm-oil producers, a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. The group aims to reduce harm to wildlife habitats, especially orangutans and elephants, and improve conditions for migrant workers on palm oil plantations. RSPO has its critics, but others say the group is making headway toward the goal of making more sustainably harvested oils available to consumers.

credit: Jennifer Nelson

The importance of how much water you should drink a day

Everyone’s heard the old refrain — drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Turns out that’s not entirely accurate. The Mayo Clinic recommends about 13 cups a day for an average male and about nine cups a day for the average female. But the actual amount of water a person should drink in a day can vary based on where you live, how much you weigh, and what kind of lifestyle you lead.
Water makes up 60 percent of our body’s weight and is absolutely imperative for our organs to function. Since we are constantly losing water through sweat, urine and even our breath, drinking enough water is crucial. If you become dehydrated, you will lose energy and become nauseated, headache-y, and tired. Severe dehydration can even send you to the hospital so drinking an adequate amount of water is crucial to maintaining your health on a daily basis.

If you exercise, you are losing more water than the average person. Therefore, it’s important to drink water before, during and after your workout — an extra 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups should be sufficient for a short workout. If you’re doing prolonged exercise, like running in a marathon, you have to drink much more than that.

In the summertime or if you live in a warm climate, you’ll also need to drink more water than the recommended amount. That’s because heat can make you sweat more and lose fluids faster.

You’ll also need to drink more water than is usually recommended if you’re sick with a fever, vomiting or diarrhea. If all you’ve got is a pesky cold, drinking water can also help keep your nasal passages hydrated and prevent you from getting sicker.

Another instance where you need to drink more water? If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. The Mayo Clinc recommended that a pregnant woman drink at least 10 cups of water a day and a nursing woman to drink 13 cups of water a day. That’s because nursing drains your body and can leave you dehydrated if you’re not drinking enough. Not to mention that adequate hydration while breastfeeding can ensure an ample milk supply. When I had my last child, the hospital lactation specialist told me to drink one cup of water each hour of the day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. — that’s a lot of water!

How do you know if you’re drinking enough? You can count the cups you drink or you can just peek in the toilet after you pee — you should be peeing a clear or light yellow liquid. If your urine is dark yellow or cloudy, you definitely are not drinking enough.

This is a lot of water to drink for physical health, but drinking water can have an influence on your emotional health as well. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE found that, if you’re not drinking enough water, drinking more water will better your mood and increase general positive emotions. If you’re already drinking a good bit of water during the way, keep it up! The same study found that folks who drank a high amount of water over the course of the day experienced a decrease in their happiness levels if they decreased their water intake.

If water isn’t your thing, you can also safely substitute juice, milk or coffee for a cup or two a day. Since I was never a major water drinker, I like to combine 1/3 cup juice with 2/3 cup water. My husband says I like to drink juice that way because I grew up on watered-down juice from a can. Maybe. But at least it helps me meet my daily water intake goal!

credit: Chanie Kirschner

How olives changed the world

If grapes have a rival for a food with the most historical importance to Western civilization, surely it is the olive.

Native to the Mediterranean basin, the olive tree and its fruit, which is technically a drupe, have held a special meaning for almost every culture and religion in the region. Ancient societies revered olives for much more than the tree’s long life and its importance to their agriculture. Many ancient peoples considered it a gift from the gods.

Olives, olive oil and the olive branch have maintained their special, even sacred, symbolic meaning through the centuries. The leafy branch of the tree has been used as a sign of virginity and purity at weddings, a symbol of peace, a sign of power to crown victors of bloody wars and a sign of wisdom.

U.N. flagThe symbolism is as important and present today as ever. Offering a hand of friendship to a foe is known as extending an olive branch. Even the United Nations flag features two stylized olive branches wrapped around a world map — a sign of peace for all people. And olive oil, long considered sacred, continues to be used in many religious ceremonies.

History of olives

The earliest fossil evidence of olives was found at Mongardino, Italy, in leaves that date to the 12th millennium B.C., according to a history compiled by the International Olive Council. Situated in Madrid, Spain, the IOC is the world’s only international intergovernmental organization in the field of olive oil and table olives. Other early records of olives have been found in North African fossils from the Paleolithic Period, when humans first started using stone tools, and in parts of Bronze Age olive trees found in Spain.

Although some believe these locations indicate that the tree is indigenous to the entire Mediterranean basin, the IOC says the olive tree originated in the thick forests of Asia Minor. The only ancient civilizations in the area that were not familiar with the olive tree were the Assyrians and Babylonians.

“Olives have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since at least 2500 B.C.,” said food historian and author Francine Segan of New York. Considerable progress in cultivation of the tree took place in Syria and Palestine, although accounts differ about how the tree reached these regions.

From there it moved to the island of Cyprus, to Egypt, to the Greek Isles in the 16th century B.C. courtesy of the Phoenicians and then, in the 6th century B.C., westward to Sicily and southern Italy. The Romans continued the expansion of the tree throughout the Mediterranean using it as a peaceful weapon to settle people and regions in their conquests.
Segan included a passage about a fondness Cato (234-149 B.C.), the Roman orator and statesman, had for olives in her book “Philosopher’s Kitchen.” Segan explained that Cato wrote a book about small farm management in which he detailed a recipe for chopped olives mixed with herbs and spices to be eaten at the start of a meal.

Here is Cato’s original recipe, as offered by Segan:

Green, black or mixed olive relish to be made thus. Remove stones from green, black or mixed olives, then prepare as follows: Chop them and add oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, mint. Cover with oil in an earthen dish, and serve.
Olive farming spread to the New World in 1492 with the Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. By 1560, olive groves were being cultivated in Mexico and South America. Today, olive trees are farmed in places as far removed from the Mediterranean as southern Africa, Australia, Japan and China.

History of olive oil

Although there are different kinds of olives, humans learned long ago that they couldn’t pick and eat the majority of them right from the tree as they would an apple. Olives are too bitter for that because they contain a compound called oleuropein. They are also low in sugar. To become palatable as table olives, the fruit typically has to undergo a series of processes to remove the oleuropein. In most cases, the few olives that are exceptions to this rule sweeten on the tree though fermentation.

Ancient olive presses apparently it was the bitter taste of freshly picked olives that led early human civilizations to find another use for olives. That use was to press them to extract the oil and then use the oil for a variety of purposes. Originally, cooking wasn’t one of those purposes. It was these many uses for the oil — lamp fuel, pharmaceutical ointment and as an anointment for religious leaders, royalty, warriors and others — that led the ancients to domesticate the olive tree.

The production of olive oil is believed to have occurred no earlier than 2500 B.C. Olive oil wasn’t used for cooking until about 2,000 years later, in the fifth or fourth century B.C. Once again, the Romans were responsible for significantly increasing olive oil production, which occurred between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.

Olives in mythology

The olive tree is revered in Greek mythology, which credits the goddess Athena, daughter of supreme god Zeus, for bringing it to the city of Athens.

According to legend — recounted in Segan’s book — whichever god gave the people of Greece the most esteemed gift would earn the right to name their most important city. Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the seas but a seeker of earthly kingdoms, gave Attica a waterway through the city that provided fresh drinking water and easy access to the Mediterranean. Athena gave them olive trees.

Although the citizens were grateful to Poseidon, Segan wrote, they preferred Athena’s gift. Not only were the olives long-lasting and delicious on their own, but they also produced a useful oil. In return for the gift of olives, Athena was granted the right to name the city after herself. The Parthenon, a temple that overlooks Athens, was built in Athena’s honor.

Other mythological figures are associated with the olive tree. When Hercules was very young, for example, he killed a lion with a wooden stake from a wild olive tree, thus associating the tree with strength and resistance. He also used a club from an olive tree in one of his twelve labors.

Olives in religion

Some of the world’s most widely followed religions place great significance on olives and olive trees. Even so, the use of olive oil in religious rituals has its origins in pagan ceremonies. Priests in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used olive oil in their sacrifices and offering to the gods.

Olive oil — along with bread, wine and water — is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity. References to olive oil are almost as old as the religion itself, with God telling Moses that olive oil is a holy anointing oil (Exodus, 30:22-33). This tradition of anointing with oil has continued throughout history by leaders of churches and nations.
The olive tree also came to symbolize peace and God’s reconciliation with man. A dove brought an olive branch back to Noah as a sign that the flood was over. Jesus was praying in the Garden of Olives, or Gethsemani, when he was taken prisoner. In Hebrew, “gethsemani” means “olive press.” Early Christians decorated their tombs with olive branches as a sign of the victory of life over death.

The Quran and hadith mention the olive and the olive tree numerous times. Islam considers the olive a blessed fruit and a health food that is a good source of nutrition. A parable refers to Allah, olive oil and light (Surah al-Noor 24:35). Another reference speaks to olives and nutrition (Surah al-Anaam, 6:141). The hadith refers to the olive tree as “blessed” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi, 1775).

Olive oil and health

Olive oil — along with all the other vegetable oils — is high in fat, which means it is high in calories. It’s also considered to be a healthy food. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

That’s because the main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. MUFAS have been found to lower total cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. As a result, MUFAs may decrease the risk of heart disease in some people. They may also normalize blood clotting. MUFAs may even benefit people with Type 2 diabetes because they affect insulin levels and blood sugar in healthful ways.

As with many good things, olive oil has a “but.” In this case, it’s that olive oil should be used in moderation because even healthful fats are high in calories. It’s also a good idea to use MUFAs instead of, rather than in addition to, other fatty foods such as butter.

Production and consumption of olives

Olive harvestThe world’s top four producers of olives are Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece, according to the IOC’s executive secretariat. The four main producers of olive oil are Spain (1.27 million tons), Italy (408,100 tons), Greece (284,200 tons) and Turkey (178,800 tons). The four leading producers of table olives are Spain (533,700 tons), Egypt (407,800 tons), Turkey (399,700 tons) and Algeria (178,800 tons). These figures are an average of the past six crops, according the IOC.

One of the trends in olive consumption, the secretariat said, is the rise of olive popularity in the Persian Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. That, it seems, is fitting. Just as olive farming has moved around the world, the consumption of one of the world’s most important foods has come full circle, back to the part of the world where it originated so many millennia ago.

credit: Tom Oder