Doctor’s Orders: Less Meat, More Olive Oil

This diet improves health and decreases food insecurity.

Photograph by Mike Braca.

Dr. Mary Flynn, a Miriam Hospital nutritionist and Brown University associate professor, developed the Healing Foods Project, a plant-based, extra virgin olive oil diet that improves health and decreases food insecurity.

Rhode Island Monthly: What is the Healing Foods Project?
Mary Flynn: It’s a program I developed based on diet research that includes healthy recipes made with extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and a starch for congregate meals sites. I have done studies comparing my plant-based olive oil diet to lower fat diets that do not include olive oil, and I found that when participants ate my diet, they decreased body weight, insulin, glucose, triglycerides and blood pressure and increased HDL cholesterol. The foods are inexpensive and extra virgin olive oil makes vegetables taste very good. The Rhode Island Foundation funded the program in hopes that I could bring it to other meal sites, and as part of the grant, I also piloted a cooking program for type two diabetics who were guests of McAuley House. This also led to the Rhode Island Foundation funding my current program, Food is Medicine.

How does this diet help the poor and hungry?
Food insecurity (poverty) is related to a higher rate of most chronic diseases, type two diabetes in particular. Extra virgin olive oil has numerous health benefits, including improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood glucose. My recipes cost on average less than $1.25 per serving and a seven-day meal plan using my diet is less expensive that the USDA’s lowest cost meal plan.

How can others adopt this diet?
The recipes are very easy, economical and healthy and most take less than fifteen to twenty minutes to cook, or as long as it takes to cook pasta. The basic recipe formula (one to two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, one or more cups of vegetables and three to four ounces of starch per serving) is easy to adapt to a person’s taste or cultural preference. A study I completed in food pantry clients showed that eating just two to three main meals per week based on this diet decreased food insecurity, body weight and overall food costs.

What are the main benefits of the Healing Foods Project?
Carotenoids are phytonutrients in vegetables (they give color to produce; the deeper the color, the higher the carotenoid content), but they need fat to be absorbed, so cooking dark-colored and cruciferous vegetables in olive oil helps our bodies benefit from the nutrients. Cooking vegetables in dietary fat (rather than boiling or steaming them), which is the prep for all my recipes, means that you will get into your body what makes the vegetables healthy.

Why do the recipes not include meat?
The recipes get their dietary protein from plant products — vegetables and starch foods (grains, rice, pasta, bread, legumes). Our need for protein is actually quite small, which is why you do not need animal food sources to meet your protein needs. The recipes are designed to include mainly foods that studies have shown to improve health and decrease risk factors for chronic disease.

Download a recipe for Spinach, Beans and Pasta from the Healing Foods Project.



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