In western society, the idea of consuming food because of anything other than fat content is foreign to most of us. But really, if we paid more attention to nutrients – instead of how far we’d have to run to work something off – we’d live much healthier lives.

Dr Mary Flynn PhD, RD, LDN, an Associate Professor of Medicine (Clinical) at Brown University, says phytonutrients found in plant-based foods are a natural source of medicine, far more effective in healing than anything we can get from a multivitamin.

Phytonutrients are special plant chemicals that don’t fall under the category of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins or minerals. They’re molecules that interact with our biology.

Dr Flynn says it’s impossible to get healthy by simply cutting out food groups. Instead, she says we need to look at what nutrients individual foods have to offer to decide what we should be eating.

Dr Flynn’s main expertise is in olive oil, after a study sparked her interest over 20 years ago. “Extra virgin olive oil can do so many good things and it can really do nothing bad,” she says. “Even if I can get my patients to use all extra virgin olive oil and no vegetable seed oils I think that’s a big health improvement. Vegetable seed oils oxidise in the body, so they can start disease and also promote it.

Dr Flynn has developed a plant-based, olive oil diet, which provides a host of phytonutrients and has been found to assist in the prevention of chronic disease. She says we should all be filling our kitchen with specific vegetables to get proactive about our health.

“The more colour in the vegetable, the deeper the pigment, the more Carotenoids,” she says. “Carotenoids in the blood will fight cancer. But Carotenoids need fat to be absorbed. In the United States the message has gotten out that you should consume dark vegetables but what they don’t say is they need fat to get the Carotenoids into the body. Without the fat they leave. So you have to cook your vegetables in fat, olive oil being a healthy fat is your best choice.”

“The other family that’s really health promoting is the Cruciferous Brassicaceae family – Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, that whole crowd. This family has really powerful nutrients called the Glucosinolates, which are water soluble. Studies have shown if you steam or boil these vegetables you don’t get that component into your body. The beauty with these families is they taste better with fat, any fat. And it will mask the sulphur taste that turns most people off.”

Dr Flynn says even though there has been a lot of talk lately about the carcinogenic effects of cooking with olive oil, she says we’re not getting the whole story.

“No one has shown that you have any problems [cooking with olive oil] at a normal kitchen heat,” she says. “A study we looked at compared frying with olive oil and frying with vegetable oil. It took 20 repeated frying times before the olive oil fell apart and it took 10 or 12 with the vegetable oil. So this is the thing, if you don’t read the whole study you don’t get the whole message. I mean, who uses the same oil to cook 20 consecutive times?”

Dr Flynn has been testing the olive oil diet with women with invasive breast cancer, and has completed pilot studies with men with prostate cancer. Her studies have showed decreases in food insecurity and improved body weight in sufferers.

While Dr Flynn believes conventional medicine, like chemotherapy, is still an integral part of treatment, she says a good diet is key in cancer prevention. “There’s studies in Europe showing that women with breast cancer have more polyunsaturated fats in their breast tissue. So if you get people to use more extra virgin olive oil and more vegetables, moving towards plant-based diets, I think that can lead to less disease.”

Dr Flynn says the beauty of the olive oil diet is it can help cancer suffers regain control in an otherwise helpless situation, as they become part of the recovery process.