But, Isn't Olive Oil Healthy?
By Matthew Lederman and Alona Pulde
The debate over olive oil is a popular one, and considering the mass advertising for the health benefits of olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet, it is no wonder that this is so. But is olive oil a health food? Doesn't it provide us with our essential fatty acids? Isn't it loaded with polyphenols? Does it really protect us against Heart Disease? Let us examine the evidence and decide for ourselves.
In order to understand the claim that the Mediterranean Diet is healthy, we must understand what that assertion is based on. The data for this claim was collected over 50 years ago and based on observations made of the people living on the island of Crete. What were these observations? That these people were eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains and were supplementing their diet with olive oil and occasional animal products (particularly fish). In addition, they were physically active (lots of walking and working in the fields).
So, is it any wonder that they were reported to be healthier than the average sedentary American living on the Standard American Diet? No, not really. But, what did we take from this study? Certainly not that we should get off the couch and start moving or that the basis of our diet needed to change, and that we needed to incorporate more of these whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains). Instead, we decided that of all the good things in this lifestlye, we would hone in on the one part of the Mediterranean Diet that is 100% fat and devoid of virtually all nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, protein, etc) -- olive oil.
So, we began to add olive oil to everything because if a little is "good," then a lot must be better. Why is this a problem? Because, on many levels it is misinformation. First, even if a little of something was good, that in no way correlates to a lot of that something being better. Take as an example exposure to sunlight. Getting a little bit of sun helps our skin activate Vitamin D (a vital component in many processes occurring in our bodies); getting a lot of sun gives us a sunburn; and getting a whole lot of sun can give us cancer.
But even more important is the fact that the addition of olive oil to our already saturated-with-fat diet is in fact detrimental to our health. The American Heart Association recommends limiting our fat intake to 25-35% of our total caloric intake. (AHA Website "Know your fats.") The average American diet is 45% fat. If we do the math, we can see that what we really need to be doing is cutting out fat, NOT adding more!
How do we do this? One, by greatly limiting or altogether eliminating oil from our diet. Oil is THE most calorie dense food available to us. To get a better idea, let us look at some foods and their calories per pound:
FOOD CALORIES PER POUND
|Food||Calories Per Pound|
|Olives (in water)||600|
We can see in the above table that pound for pound oil has more calories than ANY of the other foods. Why is this? Because oil is processed to strip away almost all of the vitamins (except some Vitamin E and Vitamin K), minerals, and other nutrients from the whole food (e.g. olives for olive oil, soybeans for soybean oil, flax for flax oil) leaving us with 100% fat. And fat, has the most calories per gram of any other food component. Compare one gram of fat at 9 calories to one gram of protein or carbohydrate each at 4 calories per gram.
What does this mean? It means that fat has two times more calories than the same amount of either protein or carbohydrates. Not to mention, that fat is much more easily stored as fat than either protein or carbohydrates. So, by adding oil to our diets we not only greatly increase the number of calories we consume BUT any of these extra fat calories will go directly to our waists, hips, thighs, or butts. To drive this point home, let us use a few examples:
- Vegetables sautéed in soy sauce (1 tablespoon) = 189 calories, 1% fat, BUT the same vegetables sautéed in olive oil (1 tablespoon) = 308 calories, 21% fat. Adding oil here almost doubles the total calories, not to mention increases your total percentage of fat from calories.
- A baked potato has 161 calories, 0% fat while the same amount of French Fries (fried in oil) has 550 calories, 43% fat. In this case, frying with oil has over 3 times the calories and 43 times the percentage of fat!
The examples are endless, but the message in each case is the same - adding oil significantly increases the caloric make-up of our food as well as the total percentage of fat in our food.
What if we were able to reduce our oil intake to meet the 25 to 35% recommendation? That would certainly be a start, but the percentage of fat is not the only thing wrong with oil. We already mentioned that oil, being liquid fat, is devoid of practically all nutrients (except Vitamin E and Vitamin K). In addition, ALL oils promote heart disease. A study reported in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) looked at the effect of oils on atherosclerotic (plaque build-up) lesions in the arteries of the heart. They found that ALL OILS - saturated, monounsaturated (olive oil) and polyunsaturated (flax oil) - were associated with an INCREASE in the plaque build up that clogs our arteries and leads to heart attacks. (JAMA 263:1646, 1990) Of note, the study found that these lesions DID NOT stop growing when monounsaturated fats (olive oil) were substituted for saturated fats (butter, lard, coconut oil).
Oil also causes our red blood cells to clump together, limiting their ability to absorb and deliver oxygen to our cells. This clumping then leads to a slowing down of our blood flow. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that our blood flow decreases by over 30% for the four hours following a fatty meal. (Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2000;36:1455-60;Vogel RA, et.al. American Journal of Cardiology. 1997;79:350-354. ) With this decrease in perfusion, is it any wonder that so many of us "crash" after a meal? Finally, oil suppresses our immune system, thus promoting the growth of cancer cells and making us vulnerable to infections.
But, doesn't olive oil provides us with our essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6)? Actually, olive oil is composed mostly of monounsaturated fats that are not essential. In fact, to get enough omega-3 from olive oil, you would need to drink 8 ounces, or one cup, that contains 1900 calories and 30g of saturated fat! A healthier way to obtain your essentially fatty acids would be to add 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds (not the oil) daily.
What about the polyphenols in olive oil, isn't that healthy? Polyphenols are antioxidants found in plant foods with many reported heath benefits. The key here is that these substances are found in plants, meaning they can be found in fruits and vegetables, foods with more nutrients, less calories, and less fat compared to oil. As a matter of fact, in 12 calories of leaf lettuce (about 4 lettuce leaves) there are as many polyphenols (30mg) as in 120 calories (1 tablespoon) of olive oil.
The take home message is that NO oil is good oil, and olive oil is no exception. As a final analogy, think of a pipe through which water should run. Imagine the fluidity of the water as it flows through the pipe. Now, imagine pouring oil into that same pipe. The oil is much thicker, much more viscous than the water. Finally, imagine those pipes are your blood vessels (arteries, veins, etc) where the blood should run much like water - smooth and flowing, but instead, for so many of us that incorporate oil into our diets, it flows more like that oil -- slow and sluggish. Considering that these "pipes" not only deliver your entire body with nutrients from your food, but also supply you with the oxygen you need to thrive and survive. What would you prefer to have running through them?