Look Beyond Olive Oil for a Healthy Fat

Dishes of olive oil and olives
William Reavell (c) Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

One of the more common myths about food that I often hear has to do with olive oil. Many people are stunned when I tell them: Olive oil is not a health food.

Many people have a misconception about olive oil, wrongly assuming that since it is a major source of calories in a Mediterranean diet, it must be healthy. A Mediterranean diet is rich in unrefined plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains and includes only limited amounts of animal foods like meats and dairy.

However, it is the unrefined plant foods of this dietary pattern – the green vegetables, tomatoes, beans and nuts – which supply the bulk of the healthful antioxidants, phytochemicals, and minerals, not the olive oil. But, somehow olive oil has been pinpointed as responsible for the health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is a step up from butter or other animal fats, but it is inferior to whole food sources of fat. The results have been mixed on the link between olive oil and cardiovascular health. In 2014, a meta-analysis (study of many studies) evaluating observational studies of olive oil consumption reported that olive oil consumption was associated with a decreased risk of stroke but not coronary heart disease. Nut consumption, in contrast, is consistently linked to at least a 35 percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.

A Mediterranean diet may be a bit better than the Standard American Diet, but it does not offer the dramatic protection against heart attacks, strokes, and cancers as does a Nutritarian diet.

A Nutritarian diet is the most effective, gold-standard of all longevity-promoting diet.

Olive Oil is a Fattening Processed Food

When most people think of processed foods, they think of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and sugary breakfast cereals. Olive oil is never on that list. But, olive oil – like all other cooking oils – is not a whole food.

It, too, is a processed food, with the fiber and many beneficial phytochemicals from the original olive removed. Eat real food, not processed food. Olive oil may be better than animal fats and other oils, but it is still highly caloric and fattening; one tablespoon has 120 calories and one-quarter cup has 500 calories. Think of this the next time someone on a cooking show pours olive oil into a pan without using a measuring cup. It is very easy to add a lot of unintended extra calories to your food. The best choice is to get your fats from healthy whole food sources, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados.

Nuts are Superior to Olive Oil, Promote Longevity

An examination of the benefits of olive oil compared to nuts was tested in a side by side study called the PREDIMED study. The study compared a low-fat diet, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil, and a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts. Both Mediterranean diets reduced blood pressure, fasting glucose levels, and total cholesterol after one year.

 After about 5 years of follow-up, both Mediterranean diets provided substantial protection against cardiovascular events compared to the low-fat diet. However, when participants were further grouped based on their baseline nut consumption, an important difference emerged. The participants with the lowest risk of death were those that ate three or more servings of nuts a week regularly, and then were assigned to the Mediterranean diet plus nuts group. This study suggests that nuts have a stronger longevity-promoting effect than olive oil. 

When you ingest fats from healthy whole foods you consume significantly fewer calories and get a much higher fiber and micronutrient value compared to ingesting fats from processed oils. Nuts and seeds contain 40 to 50 calories per tablespoon compared to olive oil’s 120 calories.

Nuts and Seeds for a Healthy Weight

However, when fats are ingested in the form of extracted oils, they are rapidly absorbed by the body with no fiber to slow them down, and are quickly and completely converted into body fat. If these fats were instead ingested from whole foods, such as seeds, nuts, and avocado, their absorption would be much slower, over hours, not minutes and these fats would be mostly burned for our energy needs and not stored. Also, the fibers, sterols and stanols in the seeds and nuts would bind some of the fat in the digestive tract, like a sponge, limiting the amount of fat absorbed by the body; adding nuts and seeds to the diet, despite their calorie density, promotes weight loss and healthy weight maintenance, not weight gain.

Top Your Salad with Nuts and Seeds, Not Olive Oil

Nuts and seeds, are associated with reduced cholesterol levels and dramatic protection against coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Since fats help you absorb the carotenoids in vegetables, replacing the olive oil on your salad with nuts and seeds reduces cardiovascular risk and calories absorbed while still providing the maximum nutrient value from the salad. In addition to increasing the absorption of nutrients in vegetables, nuts and seeds supply their own spectrum of micronutrients including cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, minerals, and antioxidants. Plus several seeds and nuts (flax, hemp, chia, walnuts) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial especially for brain health. Some seeds – flax, chia, and sesame in particular – are rich in lignans, plant estrogens that protect against breast cancer. Nuts and seeds also promote a healthy weight and protect against diabetes. Replacing olive oil-based dressings with vinegar, fruit and nut-based dressings are definitely the way to go. Nuts and seeds, not oil, have shown dramatic protection against heart disease in scientific studies. We need to get more of our fats from these wholesome foods and less from processed oils and animal fats.

Sources:

Domenech M, Roman P, Lapetra J, et al. Mediterranean diet reduces 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure, blood glucose, and lipids: one-year randomized, clinical trial. Hypertension 2014, 64:69-76.

Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvado J, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. N Engl J Med 2013, 368:1279-1290.

Guasch-Ferre M, Bullo M, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, et al. Frequency of nut consumption and mortality risk in the PREDIMED nutrition intervention trial. BMC Med 2013, 11:164.

Kris-Etherton PM, Hu FB, Ros E, Sabate J. The role of tree nuts and peanuts in the prevention of coronary heart disease: multiple potential mechanisms. J Nutr 2008, 138:1746S-1751S.

Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Dominguez LJ, Delgado-Rodriguez M. Olive oil consumption and risk of CHD and/or stroke: a meta-analysis of case-control, cohort and intervention studies. Br J Nutr 2014, 112:248-259

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