Taking a Hard Look at the "Benefits" of Olive Oil

From the January 2005 edition of Dr. Fuhrman's Healthy Times:

Careful reading of FDA-approved health claim sheds light on potential weighty problems.

The FDA recently allowed olive oil and certain foods containing olive oil to put a health claim on their labels that includes the following sentence:

"Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil."

If you are a fan of olive oil, that sentence is good news, especially if you skip over the "Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence..." part and the qualifying words "may reduce." But, weak as it is, that sentence is only part of the FDA's approved language. The sentence that follows it contains the most important information contained in the approved health claim.

"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."

This sentence tells us that the "possible benefit" is only possible if you eliminate some existing saturated fat in your diet (such as butter), replace it with an equal amount of olive oil, and don't let the addition of olive oil to the diet increase the total amount of calories from fat. Unfortunately, many consumers won't heed this vitally important part of the message.

That part about not increasing the total amount of calories from fat is not so easy to accomplish because olive oil is an incredibly calorie-dense food—containing around 4,000 calories per pound. A little bit adds a lot of fat calories.

During the past 25 years, we have seen an epidemic of obesity in America. If you add just two tablespoons of olive oil (240 calories) daily on top of an already poor quality diet—without eliminating an equal amount of calories from other sources—you could gain as much as twenty four pounds in a single year! Clearly, this aspect of olive oil consumption is not a health benefit.

For real health benefits, skip the olive oil, take a walk, and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
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Suthin Liptawat,M.D. - September 23, 2006 4:14 PM

This is a short, useful, and informative post about the health benefits of olive oil, especially the point that any one should not increase the total amount of fat intake per day.

I certainly will inform a couple of my friends, who upon my advice, had incorporated olive oil into their diets about this important point.

John - December 15, 2007 4:03 AM

There are thousands of studies on olive oil, showing benefits from the polyphenols, oleic acid and other lipid fractions. The only concern is it may increase hepatic cholesterol, but I'm unclear if this is a problem for active healthy-weight individuals.

This post seems kind of narrow sided. We must get our calories from somewhere, no? Fruits have too much carbs, especially fructose to be the main calorie source. Low-calorie veggies like leafy greens, while extremely healthful don't provide enough calories. Starchy foods cause insulin problems for many.

If following evolutionary nutrition, depending on your ancestry, a high fat diet may be the most sensible approach. Then it's a matter of which fats, ratios of fats, etc. A good mix of MUFA, SFA, and PUFA seems to be a good way to hedge your bets. I try to limit PUFA and balance my 6/3 ratio. SFAs have a bad rap, but my body thrives on them. I include lots olive oil to balance things out. Raw is always best, no matter what foods you choose.

Instead of focusing on just weight loss, there needs to be more focus on what actually are the best fuels for the body. We should focus on cultivating vibrant health, not just avoiding disease.

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