It's About Time The Olive Oil Myth Was Laid To Rest

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.

Olive oil. Flickr: trix0r

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!

     

 

Reference:

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.

 

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Comments (42) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Kyle Kranz - January 30, 2012 11:10 AM

Great article, I will share this on my blog if you do not mind :)

Pat - January 30, 2012 12:45 PM

What oil has the least amount of fat per serving? You give reasons not to use olive oil but include no alternative?

Gretchen - January 30, 2012 1:15 PM

Great article. The polyphenol comparison between olive oil and lettuce was brilliant. I will be sharing this on both Facebook and Twitter tomorrow.

Rebecca Cody - January 30, 2012 1:17 PM

Speaking of oils, I've never been clear on just how much of what foods we need to eat every day to get sufficient omega 3 in a nutritarian diet. And, without using oils at all, I suppose I should also ask about how to get the right ratio of omega 6 to omega 3.

Also, since the brain contains a lot of fat, including a lot of saturated fat, isn't a bit of coconut or coconut oil useful?

Aaron Ashmann - January 30, 2012 2:20 PM

Honestly, your article proves to me why I'd want olive oil over nuts and too many vegetables. Too many phytosterols are not good for you. Monounsaturated fats are a good fuel. Olive oil (which is without a lot of anti-nutrients) is better than saturated fat -- but I wouldn't say nuts and seeds are automatically better.

Robert - January 30, 2012 3:14 PM

Unsaturated fats are the worst kind of fat, particularly trans fats. Saturated fats are the better kind.

Michael - January 30, 2012 3:45 PM

Pat,

All oils have nearly identical amounts of calories. The alternatives are healthy whole foods like avocadoes, nuts and seeds. Oils are stripped of most of their nutrients and very highly concentrated sources of calories. Compare one ounce of walnuts with one ounce of walnut oil or an ounce of avocado with avocado oil. You will see the oil has much higher amounts of calories per unit of weight and has almost none of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein of the whole foods it was extracted from.

Lise - January 30, 2012 5:25 PM

Thank you for this information. I have wondered about the benefits of oil of any kind for a while. I enjoy making a bean salad and the dressing calls for oil, honey and vinegar. I reduced the oil but now I will omit the oil to make a healthier salad. On another note, I have had much success following the Fuhrman way of eating. I have lost weight and now have normal blood pressure without meds. Thank you , Dr. Fuhrman

Amy - January 30, 2012 6:22 PM

Hi Talia,
I have a question. I recently watched the documentary Forks over Knives. Your father and Dr. Esselstyn (who is in that film) appear to share the same beliefs on most things in the nutritional science realm. The one area where their opinions differ is on the amount of fat that should be consumed on a daily basis. Dr. Esselstyn stated that no more than 11-12% of your daily calories should come from fats in order to avoid the formation of something (plaques?)in your arteries. He says eating a higher amount of fat even while eating a vegan diet will not stop that process, even though your blood work, HDL/LDL ratio, cholesterol levels ect., will show improvements.
On the Eat to Live Plan, I find I am eating approx 25% of calories from fat. This is due to the low amount of calories consumed, combined with eating a serving of beans and 1 oz of nuts. Not even any olive oil :)
Is there a right or wrong amount of fat to eat if it is all coming from beans and nuts, or is this a case of different means for the same end.
Thanks,
Amy

Guest - January 30, 2012 8:08 PM

The fact is that most people in this country DO use animal derived fats, and olive oil is a much healthier alternative. Please don't bash it unless you have a way to change which fat the average American consumes. Using olive oil instead of saturated fats will lower LDL, and cardboard doesn't spread well on toast.

Valerie Sims - January 30, 2012 8:42 PM

Pat--All oils contain the same amount of fat per serving, therefore, the same number of calories. The alternative in a nutritarian diet is to have no added fat. There is some fat in vegetables, fruits, and beans. Nuts and seeds contain greater amounts of fat and should be eaten sparingly, but they provide some nutrients that are not in great quantities in lower fat plant foods including omega-3 fats. A healthy diet does not require the fat in any added oils.

Anthony Kasandrinos - January 31, 2012 1:09 AM

This is a complete joke

Laura - January 31, 2012 6:04 AM

There was no discussion regarding long chain triglycerides vs. Short chain triglycerides and how the body processes the two completely differently. I am not an olive oil user normally but it is far better than canola or other long chain triglyceride oils with fewer to no redeeming medium Chain triglycerides which travel through the lymphatic system instead of going directly to the portal system to be used as energy.

Marcus - January 31, 2012 6:12 AM

Surely, EVOO is a good oil more due to the fact that it is not unhealthy rather than it is amazingly healthy?

It is way better than the other processed vegetable oils and is frequently the only cold pressed, extra virgin oil available in normal shops. It is fairly low in Omega-6 so does not contribute to a bad 6/3 balance and it stands up well to some light heating for roasting veg etc.

Bottom line, it's also pretty tasty and does no evil which is something we can't say about most commercial oils out there.

This whole post works on the now commonly outdated notion that all saturated animal fat increases cholesterol when that is seemingly not the case and the vegetable oils and trans fats are more to blame.

I will keep dashing a bit of extra virgin olive oil on my salads thank you very much.

Barry - January 31, 2012 1:07 PM

Has anyone just considered and investigated the alternative of using Virgin coconut oil whereas 95% of it is considered a saturated fat comprised of medium chain triglycerides???

Carrie - January 31, 2012 1:26 PM

Anthony, if you are going to make such a rude comment, would you care to back it up with some data?

Justin Germino - January 31, 2012 1:55 PM

Calories are calories, and weight gain or loss depends on calorie reduction not just swapping out which sources you get the calories from.

Regardless of which, using Olive Oil intead of butter or margarine is still healthier, though may not help with weight loss unless you are reducing calorie intake overall and expending more calories than taking in by working out regularly.

Virginia Clay - January 31, 2012 1:59 PM

FAT IS FAT

Bonnie - January 31, 2012 2:05 PM

Great article! I do love olive oil too. But, I know it is not a health food and I don't use it regularly. I use it sparingly if at all. When I do use it I make sure to realize that I am turning a super low calorie food like lettuce into a very high calorie food by pouring oil on it. Oh and I would never pour oil on my food....too many empty calories. I always measure oil if I use it. Great writing Talia!!!

mgm - January 31, 2012 2:33 PM

I have heard that any healthy benefit from olive oil, as far as not being a transfat, is lost when people use it to do stir fry and such at high heat - that when you heat it past a certain point, it turns into a transfat. Is that true? I find going without oil to be the hardest part of ETL. I get that you need a little healthy oil, andcan get it in avocados and walnuts, etc, but that doesn't help me with stir frys and salads - and orange juice or tomatoe sauce as a salad dressing just doesn't do it for me. I really can't stand tomatoes. I've tried doing a 'steam fry' with water instead of stir fry with oil - all I can say is I must have a long way to go, because it doesn't seem very enjoyable. I've been 'eating clean' for awhile, and my tastes really have changed, but when it comes to oil, I guess it's my most lasting and stubborn food addiction.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. - January 31, 2012 3:52 PM

To address some of the comments and concerns voiced above:

All oils have 14 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon, because they are all refined/processed foods made up of 100% fat. Olive oil is not as harmful as animal fat, but it is fattening. Oils are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, so they contribute to weight gain. Americans consume approximately 400 oil-derived calories a day, a major contributor to our epidemic of overweight people.

To get sufficient omega-3 fatty acids on a nutritarian diet, 1 tbsp. of chia, hemp, or ground flaxseed is recommended daily, along with a DHA supplement. Keep in mind that olive oil is not rich in omega-3 fatty acids. For example, 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains only 103 mg, and 1 tbsp. of ground flax contains 1597 mg. (about 1300 mg in hemp and 1600 mg in chia per tbsp.)

The brain does contain a lot of fat, and the most abundant fat in the brain is DHA, an omega-3 fat. There is no concern for getting "enough" saturated fat, since the body can synthesize it, and all nuts and seeds contain a combination of unsaturated and saturated fats. However, the body cannot synthesize the basic omega-3 and omega-6 fats (ALA and LA) - these we must get from our diet. The consumption of nuts and seeds are linked to enhancements in human lifespan. In the Seventh Day Adventist study they added about 5 years for those who consumed them regularly.

There is no evidence that phytosterols from plant foods are harmful; in fact, they help to limit cholesterol absorption and re-absorption in the digestive tract.

Any weight loss benefit shown in studies from using medium-chain triglycerides vs. long-chain triglycerides has required significant dietary gymnastics and even then only slight reductions in weight was realized. All oils add excess calories, that are absorbed rapidly and quickly and efficiently stored as fat and those calories add up quickly.

The specific percentage of calories from fat is not as important as eating whole, plant foods and avoiding overeating on calories. Eating 1-2 ounces of nuts and seeds each day in the context of nutrient-rich, plant-based diet is the key - there is an acceptable range of appropriate percentages of calories from fat. However, one should not be snacking or overeating on any calorie-rich foods. The calories from nuts/seeds are not all bio-available, they are not as calorically concentrated as oil, and they are absorbed slowly.

Avoiding nuts/seeds means that you are also avoiding the cardiovascular benefits of nuts, and the lifespan promoting effects of seeds and nuts. Oils do not show such benefits. For excellent health we want to get most of our fat needs met from seeds/nuts; not oil and animal fats.

john polifronio - February 1, 2012 4:58 AM

I once went, in my thirties, to a small town, alternative doctor, who put me on an essentially vegetarian diet. I experienced the best health I have in my life. He told me, that I should take the "concentration" of a given food, to determine how much of it I should eat. He allowed me "1 tsp" of butter with my nightly allotment of steamed veggies which followed my large salad and my, up to, 8 ozs of freshly made vegetable juice. He allowed 1 tsp of extra virgin olive oil with each of the two large, fresh and complex salads I was to eat for lunch and dinner. I'm inclined to agree, that even good quality fats should be eaten with restraint. But I'm suspicious of the view, that fats should be virtually eliminated from our diets, simply because there is evidence that huge quantities of harmful fats have been shown to cause serious diseases. I may be making a mistake, but I'll continue to use modest quantities of high quality fats, and bring my consumption of low quality carbohydrates, as close to zero as possible. There is simply too much we don't know, about these matters.

Bonnie - February 1, 2012 1:45 PM

MGM, I agree with you. I love cooking with olive oil. The taste is just not the same when it comes to water sautee. I wish it were. :)

Jason - February 1, 2012 4:10 PM

Joel animal fat is not bad for you. Try again...

Dietary cholesterol content does not adversely affect cardiovascular health. Try again.

7th day adventist study is flawed in that they have increased lifespans because of other confounding factors related to their religion...not because they just eat plants.

I could cite plenty of studies...but i'm sure i'll have plenty of friends to do that for me since I'm busy right now.

susan - February 1, 2012 4:44 PM

I have been a Seventh Day Adventist for close to forty years, and a vegetarian/vegan diet (about half of all Adventists are)is a main factor in additional years of life. I am part of the health study. Other factors include: no smoking or drinking, rest, sunshine, drinking lots of water, exercise, and spending time in Bible study and prayer. There you have it. God bless.

Anthony - February 1, 2012 7:42 PM

Carrie, I would respond but then I realized that this was a vegan website........I won't even waste my time...sorry if I offended you with my rudeness but it is the truth. .....I

Sara - February 1, 2012 10:21 PM

John- he did not say fats should be virtually eliminated from the diet. Not at all. He said fats should be from whole foods not extracted oils. Oils are not the good fats- nuts and seeds and avocados are. Just hate to see people diagree about what was never said in the first place.

AmyLu - February 2, 2012 9:56 AM

I'd like to be able to share this information with people who follow the Mediterranean diet, but the tone of the article would hinder them from being open to the content. Would you consider posting again on this topic, with that target audience in mind? Also, the "it's delicious" claim may be true, but it can be used by anyone about anything they like, and does not serve to help make the case you are trying to make.

mgm - February 2, 2012 4:09 PM

Amy Lu - Regarding the 'it's delicious' thing. My only point with saying that water sauteeing that Dr. F mentions often (as well as this disgusting notion of a tomato sauce of some sort as a dressing on stuff, which I will never get) isn't as delicious as olive oil is only to say that, of all the tastes that have changed for me (like cold crunchy greens now instead of fatty bad stuff) the one thing that is hanging on like grim death is a love of a bit of oil. I am not using very much at all, or very often, but my taste for it isn't changing, and I'm not falling in love with steaming stuff just because I've been at it for awhile. I'll eat this way even if my tastes don't change, because it's better for me, but it often sucks. When you get rid of the endless tomatoes, eggplant (bleah!) and soy (which all my research has convinved me to avoid) there's not much left. These days I eat because it's like breathing air - you have to do it - but I've pretty much stopped enjoying it. I dread meals, but darn it if I'm not getting down just incredible amounts of tremendously healthy food. I just wish we didn't have to eat, it's no longer enjoyable.

mgm - February 2, 2012 5:44 PM

I guess the question is, when you have lost your taste for the bad stuff (cake, cookies, chips and cheesy pasta are not remotely tempting) but you are so sick to death of the healthy stuff you are about to just walk into the ocean, what's left? I wish I was an air fern.

Tania - February 2, 2012 8:29 PM

So sad to hear all these comments about food not being enjoyable without the oil. I'm certainly no saint; I've virtually eliminated it (save for prepared soups you buy), but I've really found that the blandness goes away with some cooked veggies on top of my salad. The whole eating salad without dressing business is one thing I never thought I could do. In fact, I still have a very hard time eating plain lettuce/spinach/romaine, etc. However, I've found that mixing mushrooms, tomatoes, avocado, garlic, beans, and various herbs really adds new dimension to my salads. I liken the flavor (with the right seasoning)to a taco salad (minus the taco!). I'm no expert, but I encourage everyone not to forget to put juicy fruits of all kinds in your salads... I find I rarely need even vinegar to "spice" it up!

Amy - February 3, 2012 3:56 PM

Dr. Fuhrman,
Thank you for taking the time to respond to a number of the post-article queries (mine included).

mike rubino - February 3, 2012 6:00 PM

For those looking for some zip to their dressings try nut based dressings made with a nut butter or a nut butter combo and mix it with a variety of juices and vinegars and seasonings . Made me, a paisan no less , able to skip the OO on most of my dressings without missing it.

If I do use OO I just put a half teaspoon in the salad. To get it spread well I mix it by hand . This is how the old time Italians did it to cover their salads with minimal oil.

mike rubino - February 3, 2012 6:01 PM

For those looking for some zip to their dressings try nut based dressings made with a nut butter or a nut butter combo and mix it with a variety of juices and vinegars and seasonings . Made me, a paisan no less , able to skip the OO on most of my dressings without missing it.

If I do use OO I just put a half teaspoon in the salad. To get it spread well I mix it by hand . This is how the old time Italians did it to cover their salads with minimal oil.

Talia - February 3, 2012 7:56 PM

I just wanted to point out that avoiding or minimizing oil use does not have to equate to minimizing pleasurable eating. I make a lot of nut-based dressings and often eat my salads with tasty salsas and spiced hummuses. On occasion, when I go to restaurants, I ask for dressing on the side and use it sparingly- healthy eating does not have to be all or nothing, but knowledge is our best tool to making smarter eating choices. Here is a link to many well-received oil-free dressing recipes: http://healthygirlskitchen.blogspot.com/2011/09/big-list-of-no-oil-salad-dressings.html

Joe - February 5, 2012 9:58 AM

I've found that reducing the olive oil I use in dressings and substituting a salsa, tomato sauce, or carrot or pumpkin puree makes a fantastic dressing that still has a hint of virgin olive flavor I love, and I don't think I'm killing myself including a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in my diet. Dr. Fuhrman even says this is not an all or nothing proposition. These are steps we can all use to improve our health, and believe it or not believe it that's up to you. Thank you Dr. Fuhrman for putting the information out there!!!

WilliamT - February 6, 2012 10:59 PM

Several years ago, my medical doctor said I was too thin as a vegetarian and needed to gain weight. He recommended I eat pasta and pour on gobs of olive oil. I went out and bought the highest quality extra virgin organic cold pressed Olive Oil. Per my doctor's instructions, I poured olive oil on everything I ate, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Within a short time frame, I developed little lymphatic type nodules under both arm pits and in my private parts. Scared, I stopped the Olive Oil cold turkey. I was sure I had given myself terminal cancer. To my relief, after a week or so, all the nodules disappeared, simultaneously with stopping the olive oil. I made no other changes to my diet. I know I shouldn't have consumed that much olive oil on my food, but the Olive Oil shouldn't have created all the little 1/2 inch nodules on my body either, especially if it was supposedly good for you. Now I look forward to my salad every lunch and dinner with lemon juice, walnuts, sunflower/sesame seeds and avocado. Thank you Dr F!

RW - February 12, 2012 11:19 PM

What about olives? I know most olives are loaded with sodium, but - a local grower has some which are brined only with garlic, parsley and lemon juice.... no salt.
Are low-sodium olives healthy?

abitcrunchy - March 8, 2012 5:45 PM

Gee...and here I thought that counting calories was an 80's thing.

joseph brian palange - March 22, 2012 8:28 AM

I would like to suggest folks, honestly the article is informative. But it would be good more for me if the study includes physical observation like group A using olive oil for certain period of time and group B having no olive oil. to that point we will determine the study if it is badly concern for the health community or not. I am thankful for the article because i learned new things. But it would be more helpful if the theory confirmed by applications. Or we will see results whether using olive oil will harm us even using it in minimal. In my opinion the author simply teaching what is more nutritious. but in my opinion I have lots of instances that my patients goes well when they are taking 2tbsp of olive oil. probably not in the nutrition but I believe every thing has its own unique rule. I disagree to disregard olive totally in all instances but rather we should be wise enough how to use its talent.

kate - August 26, 2012 5:55 PM

I have something to say about all of this .....One simple fact is...ANY oils are not whole foods. Whole foods are the key words here. I use olive oil, but have noticed that when I stop using it, or cut way back, I seem to feel better. I think oils are hard to digest, and maybe it would be better just to eat olives. The dried ones, that are cured without salt. Then you get the whole enchilada. Right????

trajayjay - January 25, 2013 10:21 PM

Ok, so i'm assuming that olive oil is only unhealthy if you pour a glass of it and drink it like milk. But no one does that. Usually, olive oil is used to saute or dress a salad, or marinade. It shouldn't contribute a huge amount of calories to our diet. And besides, people who struggle to gain weight would benefit from a little OO. But if olive oil is so bad for us, then what should we use in its place?

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