The Truth about Olive Oil
From The Vegetarian
Pritikin Longevity Center abridged article
Rarely does the media miss a chance to report that olive oil is a
“good” fat. A recent 2006 study praised olive oil as heart-healthy – and
extra virgin olive oil as especially healthy (1). The problem, though,
is that many journalists do not fully dissect the scientific studies on
which they’re reporting. Facts get distorted. Qualifiers disappear.
Headlines turn sensational. And so does the truth about olive oil. In
this article, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center,
Jeffrey Novick, MS, RD, responds to the hype about olive oil to help us
better understand what’s true about this so-called “healthy” fat – and
The Hype: Olive oil will protect you from a heart attack.
Olive oil is not heart-healthy. Yes, foods rich in monounsaturated fats
like olive oil are healthier than foods full of saturated and trans
fats, but just because something is “healthier” does not mean it is good
Several human studies have questioned olive oil’s heart-health
claims. When researchers from the University of Crete recently compared
residents of Crete who had heart disease with residents free of the
disease, they found that the residents with heart disease ate a diet
with “significantly higher daily intakes” of monounsaturated fats
(principally olive oil) as well as all fats.(2)
Data from the Nurses Health Study, an on-going study from Harvard
Medical School analyzing the habits and health of nearly 90,000 female
nurses, found that those who consumed olive oil were only marginally
healthier than those eating a typical high-in-saturated-fat American
Another study investigated how well subjects’ arteries were dilating
to accommodate blood flow after they had eaten several meals. Each meal
emphasized a different component of the Mediterranean diet. After the
meal rich in olive oil, dilation in the arteries was impaired.(3) The
meal caused severe constrictions, which can injure the endothelium, the
inner lining of arteries, contributing to heart disease. No such
problems occurred with the other meals. “The beneficial components of
the Mediterranean diet,” concluded Robert Vogel, MD, and colleagues at
the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “appear to be
antioxidant-rich foods…” These foods, he continued, “appear to provide
some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function
produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.” So if you’re not
eating fruits and veggies, you’re not getting protection. If you’re
pouring olive oil on an already bad diet – one devoid of protectors and
full of destroyers like cheeseburgers – you’ve only made that diet
Research recently published in the Journal of the American College of
Cardiology also found that “dilation was worse” after 24 people, 12
healthy and 12 with high cholesterol levels, consumed olive oil. Five
teaspoons of olive oil swallowed after salami-and-cheese meals did not
help the arteries relax and expand.(4) According to Dr. Robert Vogel,
this research and other data indicate that olive oil is not heart
Finally, and most fundamentally, pouring a lot of olive oil means
you’re consuming a lot of fat. And eating a lot of any kind of fat,
including “healthier” ones, means you’re eating a lot of calories, which
leads to excess weight, which leads to increased risk of diabetes, high
blood pressure, stroke, many forms of cancer, and yes, heart disease.
The Hype: Extra virgin olive oil is especially heart-healthy because
it’s rich in polyphenols.
The Truth: All plant foods are rich in polyphenols, and many deliver far more polyphenols (and far fewer
calories) than olive oil.
Let’s take a look at this new study on extra virgin olive oil:
Researchers from Italy and other European countries directed 200 healthy
men to use three different olive oils for three weeks a piece. One was
an extra virgin olive oil high in antioxidant plant compounds called
polyphenols; the other two were more heavily processed “non-virgin”
varieties with moderate to low polyphenol levels. At the end of the
study, the scientists found that the virgin olive oil showed better
heart-health effects – higher HDL “good” levels as well as greater
declines in markers that may indicate oxidative stress.
is a process that inflames the arteries and heightens the risk of plaque
rupture and heart attacks. The researchers credited the virgin oil’s
high polyphenol content for the better results. But the problem is: If
you’re relying on olive oil for your polyphenols, you’ve got to eat a
lot of calories to get a decent amount of polyphenols, and eating lots
of calories is just what Americans, with our epidemic rates of obesity,
do not need. A hefty 120 waist-expanding calories of olive oil delivers
30mg of phytosterols, a group of polyphenols. By contrast, a mere 11
calories of green leafy lettuce gets you the same number of polyphenols
– 30mg, and so much more.
Keep in mind what mountains of research over
the past several decades have told us. Consistently, the foods linked
with healthier, longer, disease-free lives are foods rich in all kinds
of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, beta carotene,
and so on. Yes, foods like leafy greens. Olive oil, by comparison,
tallies up a whole lot of zeros when it comes to most nutrients.
The Hype: Olive oil will lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. The Truth:
Olive oil, in and of itself, does not lower LDL cholesterol. In just
about every study showing that people lowered their LDL cholesterol
levels after starting to use olive oil, including this latest study on
extra virgin olive oil, the people used olive oil in place of other
dietary fats, often saturated fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats.
Of course LDL is going to go down. You’ve gotten rid of the LDL-raising
The point is: It’s not the addition of olive oil that’s improving LDL
cholesterol levels. It’s the subtraction of artery-clogging fats like
saturated fats and trans fats. That’s precisely what the official health
claim allowed by the Food and Drug Administration states. Here are the
claim’s exact words: “Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence
suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily
may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated
fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to
replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total
number of calories you eat in a day.” Unfortunately, what we usually
hear in the media and see on olive oil bottles are only the words “heart
The Hype: The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet, and it’s
rich in olive oil, so olive oil must be heart-healthy.
The Truth: The
people on this planet with the longest life expectancy and the least
heart disease do not eat diets rich in olive oil. They do eat a diet
rich in whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and
Yes, in the 1950s Ancel Keys and fellow scientists observed that
people living in the Mediterranean, especially on the isle of Crete,
were lean and heart disease-free. And true, their diet consisted of
olive oil, but it also had an abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and
spices, coarse whole-grain breads, beans, and fish. And they walked
about nine miles daily, often behind an ox and plow.
But much has
changed on Crete – and throughout the Mediterranean – since then. Today,
the people of Crete still eat a lot of olive oil, but their intake of
whole, natural foods has gone way down, as has their physical activity.
The island’s new staples are meat, cheese, and television. Today, more
than 60% of Crete’s adult population and an alarming 50% of its children
are overweight. And has maintaining an olive oil-rich diet saved them
from disease? Not at all. In recent years, rates of heart disease,
diabetes, and hypertension have skyrocketed. The point here is that
olive oil is not the magic bullet that made populations along the
Mediterranean in the 1950s so healthy. Olive oil was simply a bellweather, or marker, for other features of the Mediterranean diet,
like plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and exercise, that were
in fact healthful.
The Hype: Olive oil raises “good” HDL cholesterol.
The Truth: Many
people with high HDLs have diseased arteries, and many with low HDLs
have very clean arteries. One of the “hearty healthy” effects of extra
virgin olive oil, wrote the authors of the recent study on olive oil
varieties, is that it raised levels of HDL good cholesterol more than
the non-virgin oils. But HDL is just one number in a risk group of many,
and it’s not the most important one. LDL is. Ultimately, we should focus
on the big picture – on all the numbers that contribute to heart health.
And the fact is: the populations who have the lowest incidences of heart
disease in the world, the people living in Okinawa and in other rural
regions of Japan, have very low levels of HDL – in the 20s.
The Hype: Certainly, monounsaturated fats are better than saturated
The Truth: “Better than” is not “good in and of itself.” The human
body has no essential need to consume monounsaturated fat. The only fat
our body has an essential need to consume is omega 6 and omega 3 fat.
People worry about getting enough omega 3. Olive oil is a poor source of
omega 3. You’d have to drink seven ounces of olive oil to get sufficient
omega 3. Seven ounces of olive oil is 1,800 calories and 30 grams of
saturated fat (yes, a percentage of the fat that makes up olive oil is
saturated.) Is olive oil better than butter? Yes. But is it good in and
of itself? No.
REFERENCES: (1) Annals of Internal Medicine, 2006; 145: 333. (2)
British Journal of Nutrition, 2004; 91: 1013. (3) Journal of the
American College of Cardiology, 2000; 36: 1455. (4) Journal of the
American College of Cardiology, 2006; 48: 1666.
Copyright © 2007 Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa. All Rights
Reserved. Article used by permission from K. Murphy, 5W Public
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