I am a firm believer in the nutritional benefits of extra virgin olive oil and use it regularly. Nevertheless, I am aware that controversy surrounds this topic and that many clinical studies simply do not support the often sensational claims by ardent proponents of a Mediterranean diet.
More to the point, I like the taste of EVOO and feel that eating an unsaturated fat substitute with high levels of polyphenols is better for you than the monounsaturated fats found in most fast-foods. Most importantly, I tend to eat more salads and fresh vegetables when using olive oil, which is probably a lot more healthy than pairing olive oil with processed food.
Found below is a short video highlighting some of the benefits of incorporating extra virgin olive oil into your diet, without the hardcore “sell” based on unsupported evidence:
Regardless of which side of the “nutritional” debate you stand on, here are facts plus excerpts from the “pros and cons” of using olive oil regularly. Again, let me emphasize that, in my opinion, it is not so much the nutritional benefits of olive oil but rather the foods that you consume when using olive oil on a regular basis.
Nutrition Facts of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Found below is a comprehensive chart which lists the nutrition facts of extra virgin olive oil. The source of this data is “Self Nutrition Data,” and I have no reason to question its integrity. For those wishing for more information, please visit their website:
While many other products tracked by Self Nutrition Data seem to provide “healthier” food choices, it is important to bear in mind that lifestyle food decisions are not simply based on choosing one product over another, but the combination of foods to produce a balanced and healthy diet.
The Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In an effort to provide both sides of the argument, I provide the common benefits of olive oil cited by many pundits of the Mediterranean diet. The source of this information is from Olive Oil Times and is presented without editorial comment:
- Cancer: The phytonutrient in olive oil, oleocanthal, mimics the effect of ibuprofen in reducing inflammation, which can decrease the risk of breast cancer and its recurrence. Squalene and lignans are among the other olive oil components being studied for their possible effects on cancer.
- Heart Disease: Olive oil lowers the levels of total blood cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides. At the same time it does not alter the levels of HDL-cholesterol (and may even raise them), which plays a protective role and prevents the formation of fatty patches, thus stimulating the elimination of the low-density lipoproteins.
- Oxidative Stress: Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, especially vitamin E, long thought to minimize cancer risk. Among plant oils, olive oil is the highest in monounsaturated fat, which doesn’t oxidize in the body, and it’s low in polyunsaturated fat, the kind that does oxidize.
- Blood Pressure: Recent studies indicate that regular consumption of olive oil can help decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- Diabetes: It has been demonstrated that a diet that is rich in olive oil, low in saturated fats, moderately rich in carbohydrates and soluble fiber from fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains is the most effective approach for diabetics. It helps lower “bad” low-density lipoproteins while improving blood sugar control and enhances insulin sensitivity.
- Obesity: Although high in calories, olive oil has shown to help reduce levels of obesity.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: Although the reasons are still not fully clear, recent studies have proved that people with diets containing high levels of olive oil are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
- Osteoporosis: A high consumption of olive oil appears to improve bone mineralization and calcification. It helps calcium absorption and so plays an important role in aiding sufferers and in preventing the onset of Osteoporosis.
While these nutritional claims by the Olive Oil Times certainly have some basis in fact, I would avoid taking them at face value. Personally, I believe that there is clear evidence that a Mediterranean diet is healthier than a diet consisting primarily of factory processed food.
A Contrarian View on Benefits of Olive Oil
A contrarian view on the “benefits” of olive oil is provided by the Pritikin Longevity Center in an article entitled “Olive Oil Nutrition – What’s Wrong with Olive Oil?” This is a lengthy article based on scientific studies and I will recap or summarize just of a few of the conclusions:
As this very important long-term study on monkeys demonstrates, “better” blood lipids do not necessarily lead to better arteries. Though the monkeys on the mono-fat-rich diet had lower LDLs and higher HDLs than the monkeys on the sat-fat-rich diet, they ended up with the same amount of damage to their arteries.
And 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 diet.
“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, including vegetables, fruits, and their derivatives such as vinegar, and omega–3–rich fish…” 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 worse, points out Dr. Vogel.
If you’re relying on olive oil for your polyphenols and plant sterols, you’ve got to eat a lot more calories to get a decent amount of these phytochemicals, and eating lots of calories is just what Americans, with our epidemic rates of obesity, do not need.
A mere tablespoon of olive oil delivers a hefty 120 calories for a mere 30mg of polyphenols/plant sterols. By contrast, just 11 calories of green leafy lettuce gets you about the same amount of polyphenols/plant sterols.
The FDA appears to agree with data showing that replacing butter with olive oil generally improves blood lipids, “but it also recognizes that this improvement might or might not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease,” points out Dr. Kenney “There is no convincing evidence at this time that those better-looking blood lipids necessarily lead to a lot less atherosclerosis or fewer heart attacks.”
Oils are the most calorie–dense foods on earth. Ounce for ounce, oil packs even more calories than butter or bacon. A diet with hefty amounts of oil invariably produces hefty amounts of body fat, which leads to all sorts of devastating diseases, including America’s #1 killer: heart disease.
Try, especially if you are overweight, to limit your intake of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils to 1 teaspoon per 1,000 calories daily. Spray rather than pour oil; you’ll likely use much less.
Use oil, not as a key ingredient, but as a condiment or seasoning that will enhance the flavors and your appreciation of healthy, natural foods like leafy greens and other vegetables.
Home Cooking and Dining Out
Getting proper nutrition is a process, not a diet fad. With our stressful lives, it is not always possible to ensure that our bodies are receiving the proper nutrients to lead a healthy life. More to the point, it is unlikely that you will query a chef on the type and quality of olive oil or balsamic vinegar they use to prepare their salad dressing.
When dining out, it is most difficult (and probably rude) to determine the quality of the ingredients used for your meal. In fact, the only way to do so is to prepare food at home using authentic ingredients. Aside from creating great family dynamics by cooking together, you will quickly reap the benefits of using “healthy” organic food products which have not been contaminated with pesticides and herbicides.
For those wishing to learn more about the benefits of home cooking, I refer you to an excellent article published by Groom and Style on the many advantages of eating at home vs. dining out. I hope you too will soon be cooking at home with wild abandon.
As can be seen above, there is considerable debate on the efficacy of extra virgin olive oil. I will continue to incorporate it into my daily diet, but recognize that pairing olive oil with healthy fresh foods is probably more important than the olive oil itself.