Dr Mary Flynn has devoted her career to researching how food can be used as medicine to prevent all kinds of diseases.

Research dietitian Dr Mary Flynn is on a mission to educate everyday people on how foods can act as medicine and the benefits of extra virgin olive oil.

We spoke to Flynn about her olive oil diet that she has tested for weight loss in women diagnosed with cancer:

What are the key components of an olive oil (or Mediterranean) diet?

The three components are extra virgin olive oil; plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and grains; and red wine.

Why red wine?

Red wine has some really interesting components and it has to do with the grape itself. When you crush the grape to a juice and ferment it, you make more phytonutrients. These phytonutrients are great for improving risk factors of chronic diseases.

Why is extra virgin olive oil better than other oils Australians commonly use?

Vegetable seed oils are chemically extracted, they don’t have health benefits in them and have high levels of polysaturated fats. These fats aren’t made by the human body, so they come in through the diet and are highly related to heart disease and cancers.

In Australia, it’s easy to buy great extra virgin olive oil, which is pure juice of the olive that has a whole bunch of phenols — great to prevent disease.

Is there anything missing from typical Australian diets?

Particularly healthy vegetables, especially ones that have dark colouring. These dark pigments are made by catenoids and when these are found in the bloodstream, they’ve been shown to really fight and keep cancers at bay. However, they need fat to be absorbed, so if you’re eating your dark vegetables without fat you don’t get them into your body.

The cruciferous family of vegetables have been shown to also be very protective, so your broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. These particularly fight breast cancer and prostate cancer.

However, when you boil or steam these vegetables you lose the protective properties, so by using extra virgin olive oil, it’ll not only retain these components, but make the vegetables taste better.

What does ‘foods as medicines’ mean?

Humans can exist on a huge range of diets; you can eat only eat rice and still be alive. However if you can get people to eat foods that are endorsed by science, you will decrease your risk of cancers long term.

So using wholegrains whenever you can, minimising seafoods and making sure you have enough carbohydrates to sustain your energy for exercise are all important.

What do we know now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, about our diets?

Australian nutrition is very similar to our American style where the emphasis has been on vitamins and minerals, which you do need to be healthy and keep growing. But now people are turning towards ways to decrease risks of chronic diseases. If you want to live to 70 or 80 and be a healthy person, you need to think of how you can eat to manage your weight, keep your cholesterol at a good level and keep your blood pressure down.

I’ve been teaching nutrition for the last 15 years, and I have to say in the last five years I’ve seen more interest in long term nutrition, as opposed to short term solutions. Especially with the cost of health care, people are now saying, well, we could use diet to decrease blood pressure and to decrease heart diseases. Preventative medicine is a whole new area.

What are the first steps readers can make towards these long-term diets?

The first step is to not use vegetable oils but to switch to extra virgin and use it every day. It needs to be consumed on a regular basis for its health benefits to really work. I ask all my patients to eat red meat less often and eat more vegetables. I probably talk to twenty patients a week and one tells me they eat vegetables every day. To me, that’s a very easy thing to change when you can have a vegetable-based salad with bread, some protein and add extra virgin olive oil.

If you look at vegans who eat no animal products, they’re generally lean. As you add animal products to your diet you increase fat intake and decrease the healthy aspects of your diet. You don’t have to give these animal products up, but consider how much are you willing to cut back?

When people make these changes, I have them saying to me, “I feel better” or “I have more energy”, and when you’re over 40 — you can’t put a price on that.

Dr Mary Flynn presented her research in Brisbane on Tuesday 10 June.