Olive oil has been hailed as the healthy oil for far too long and it’s about time science triumphed over the almighty media on this relentless myth. Most people have been taught at some point or read somewhere that olive oil is a healthy oil to be consumed with fervor. It’s a key component to the Mediterranean diet, which itself has been touted as a heart healthy diet. However, the evidence for these claims just do not stack up and for many people striving to lose weight, it is sabotage city.
This is the reality: just like all other oils, olive oil is 100 percent fat, lacks a significant nutrient load, contains a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon, that’s fattening.
Some have proposed that extra virgin olive oil is heart healthy because it is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols have antioxidant characteristics and studies show that they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, all plant foods are rich in polyphenols and most deliver much more polyphenols (and far fewer calories) than olive oil. If you rely on olive oil for your polyphenols, good luck getting enough. You’d need to consume 5 tablespoons of olive oil, the equivalent of 600 calories, just to get 150 mg of polyphenols, the same amount in 55 calories of lettuce, not to mention hundreds of other nutrients and documented benefit in greens. Study after study links the consumption of leafy greens with healthier, longer, disease-free lives. Probably because they are loaded with all sorts of nutritious compounds, among them vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, and various carotenoids. In comparison, olive oil, has little or none of these.1 In fact, phytosterols and vitamin E are a few of the slim pickings of nutrients found in olive oil that I decided to do a bit more digging on. Compared to the amount of phytosterols and vitamin E in other foods, olive oil really doesn’t contain that much, as represented in the following chart:
|Nutrients per 120 calories||Olive Oil||Broccoli, raw||Spinach, raw||Sunflower seeds, raw|
|Phytosterols||30 mg||174 mg||46 mg||110 mg|
|Vitamin E||1.94 mg||2.7 mg||10.2 mg||6.8 mg|
It is also a myth that olive oil lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Study design is key. Studies linking olive oil consumption to lower cholesterol levels are flawed. Olive oil appears to lower bad cholesterol in most studies because the participants replace animal fats like butter, cheese, and fatty meats with olive oil. Animal fats are composed of saturated fats, which are the most dangerous types of fat. Consumption of saturated fats raises cholesterol levels and elevates the risk of heart disease and cancer. Replacing animal fat with cardboard would lower anyone’s LDL cholesterol levels. The addition of olive oil is not what lowers bad cholesterol levels; it is the removal of artery-clogging saturated fat. This is a shame for the average consumer who is led to believe that olive oil is heart healthy and it doesn’t help that we see olive oil bottles labeled as “Heart Healthy” in grocery stores. Yet, even the Food and Drug Administration has stated:
“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.”
We truly are victims of the media. In conclusion, get your healthy fats from whole food sources and not low nutrient oils- olive oil included. The Mediterranean diet might be healthy when compared to other diets, but this is because of the intake of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in that diet compared to the dangerous SAD diet, rather than any supposed benefits of olive oil. And seriously who needs oil when nuts, seeds and avocadoes taste so good!
1. Covas MI; Nyyssonen K; et al.The effect of polyphenols in olive oil on heart disease risk factors: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145(5):333-341.