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Lebanese diet not so Mediterranean after all

Fats make up between 30 and 40 percent of an average Lebanese person’s diet. REUTERS/Random House/Evan Sung/HO

BEIRUT: Lebanese people eat very little olive oil and too much of vegetable oils like corn and sunflower, causing an imbalance that increases the risk of obesity and related diseases, a new study has found.

“Although Lebanon borders the Mediterranean Sea, the Lebanese diet is far from the traditional Mediterranean diet,” the researchers said. “Compared to other Mediterranean countries, Lebanon has one of the lowest fish and seafood consumption rates ... Efforts should focus on ways to increase fish and olive oil consumption.”

The results, which were published in the June issue of the Lipid Technology journal, show that the Lebanese diet differs greatly from the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish, nuts, dairy and whole grains.

The study was authored by Omar Obeid, professor in human nutrition at the American University of Beirut, and Carla El Mallah, a master’s student at the department. It compiled data for Lebanon obtained from the databases of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which broke down the consumption of fats in Lebanese households, including animal fats like butter and cream, olive, and vegetable oils.

Fats make up between 30 and 40 percent of an average Lebanese person’s diet, according to the data. About 40 percent of those fats are imported vegetable oils – soybean, sunflower and corn oil.

Just 2.2 percent of calories consumed by a Lebanese person come from olive oil. The Lebanese also consume much less fish than other countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the researchers found.

The FAO data released in 2014 shows that Lebanon has one of the lowest rates of consumption of olive oil in the Mediterranean, below Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Syria, and above France and Turkey. Lebanon’s ranking is similarly low for fish consumption.

In addition, a lot of the fish consumed in Lebanon is fried in vegetable oil.

The researchers said that Lebanese households tend to use olive oil primarily as a dressing for salads, while other vegetable oils like corn, sunflower and soybean are used for cooking.

They said the overconsumption of vegetable oils and low levels of olive oil and fish in the diet leads to an imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids present in fish and vegetable oils respectively, as well as low levels of omega-9 fatty acids found in olive oil.

This imbalance in fatty acids, which are essential for body functioning, can lead to inflammation in the body that contributes to heart disease. A diet with a better balance of different types of fats is healthier, the researchers said.

They also said the imbalance is exacerbated by the fact that the Lebanese diet is becoming increasingly “modernized,” including greater amounts of processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, more meat, sweetened beverages like sodas, refined cereals and fast food with limited fresh produce and lower amounts of fish.

“There is an increased dependence on ease of making food,” Obeid said. “Both mother and father are at work and [don’t have] enough time to cook a complex meal or a meal that requires a long time to prepare.”

The researchers said that the solution to the imbalance is for the Lebanese to adopt a diet more similar to the Mediterranean one by increasing the use of olive oil and adopting a more balanced approach to other fats.

Mallah, the study’s co-author, said the low levels of fish consumption are linked to the high cost of fish here, the lengthy preparation time and unpleasant smells.

“As for the olive oil, the main reason for its low consumption is the high cost,” she said. “The average cost of one liter of virgin olive oil is around $6.25 whereas one liter of corn or sunflower oil ranges between $1.5 and $2.8.”

She said consumers could act by using olive oil as the principal source of fat in their diet, in both cooking and salads, while confining vegetable oils to high temperature and long duration cooking. They could also consume leaner sources of protein like fish and poultry as well as legumes like beans, peas and lentils.

They could also replace snack foods like crackers and chips with raw nuts and seeds, she said.

“Use all in moderation and do not depend on one source of fat or oil,” Obeid said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

Lebanese people eat very little olive oil and too much of vegetable oils like corn and sunflower, causing an imbalance that increases the risk of obesity and related diseases, a new study has found.

The results, which were published in the June issue of the Lipid Technology journal, show that the Lebanese diet differs greatly from the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish, nuts, dairy and whole grains.

Just 2.2 percent of calories consumed by a Lebanese person come from olive oil. The Lebanese also consume much less fish than other countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the researchers found.

In addition, a lot of the fish consumed in Lebanon is fried in vegetable oil.

The researchers said that the solution to the imbalance is for the Lebanese to adopt a diet more similar to the Mediterranean one by increasing the use of olive oil and adopting a more balanced approach to other fats.


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