The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil have been well documented. Now a recent study has found that the olive oil in the Mediterranean diet may contribute to bone health. The findings are good news for people concerned about osteoporosis, the most common bone disease in the U.S.
Osteoporosis in the Mediterranean
Osteoporosis affects more than 10 million people in the U.S. Elderly women are most at risk, but men are not excluded. It’s been estimated that out of 2 million osteoporosis-related bone fractures, 9 percent occurred in men.
Previous studies have measured lower rates of osteoporosis in Mediterranean countries compared with the rest of Europe. Scientists have suspected this could be related to the Mediterranean diet, which relies on olive oil for fat instead of dairy, eggs and red meat. Researchers from Spain say they have completed the first randomized study demonstrating that olive oil does indeed help to preserve bone density.
Olive oil and osteocalcin
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, evaluated 127 older men taking part in a trial on the effect of the Mediterranean diet on prevention of cardiovascular disease. Participants were randomly assigned to three groups: Mediterranean diet with mixed nuts, Mediterranean diet with virgin olive oil, and a low-fat diet.
At the beginning of the study, the men’s blood was measured for total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides and osteocalcin—a protein essential for bone formation. Two years later, blood samples were taken again. Researchers found that men on the Mediterranean diet with olive oil showed a significant increase in osteocalcin. The olive oil group also maintained blood levels of calcium, which dropped significantly in the other groups.
Another Mediterranean miracle?
Past studies have suggested that the Mediterranean diet can help lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, promote weight loss, improve diabetes and reduce pain and swollen joints in rheumatoid arthritis. Should improved bone density be added to the list?
One expert on osteoporosis, Dr. Beth Kitchin, a patient educator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Osteoporosis Clinic, is skeptical. She told ABC News that osteocalcin is simply a biomarker of bone health and the Spanish study doesn’t prove the Mediterranean diet actually increased bone density or lowered fracture risk.
How to prevent osteoporosis
Most nutritionists agree there’s no downside to the Mediterranean diet relying solely on olive oil for to prevent osteoporosis isn’t a good idea. People also need vitamin D and calcium for stronger bones. It’s likely the best strategy to prevent osteoporosis as you age has four components: Mediterranean diet, moderate exposure to sunlight for vitamin D, calcium from rich natural food sources and plenty of exercise.