QUESTION: “Is extra virgin olive oil healthy in moderation? The Mediterranean diet recommends we consume larger amounts of oil while a whole foods diet would recommend cutting oil out. I need some clarification, please.” – E. via Spotify
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, and thank you for listening to the show on Spotify.
Don’t you just love it when we receive conflicting diet information? Sadly, it seems to happen often. No wonder there’s so much mistrust out there when it comes to healthy eating.
So, again, I appreciate you asking about this – I will try and provide you with the most current information from published studies to help explain what’s going on. In fact, whether fats and oils are truly healthy for us continues to be debated.
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Chewing the Fat
Here’s what I can say: the types of fats and oils we consume regularly seems to be most important. This is very different than what the recommendation used to be.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, low-fat foods were all the rage. The message was: fat was the enemy and avoid it as often as you can. Well, that led to an increase in risk of heart disease.
This was completely the opposite of what most health professionals expected. If too much fat in the blood increased risk of blockages forming in the arteries, then decreasing the amount of fat we get in our diets should have reduced our risk for developing heart disease. Well, it turned out that when people decreased the amount of fat they ate each day, they increased the amount of highly processed carbohydrates they ate to compensate for this.
As you’re going to hear more about on tomorrow’s episode, highly processed carbohydrates can have all sorts of harmful effects on the body. They can get converted to sugar really quickly. This quickly-formed sugar can be converted to fat by the body really easily, too. Plus, too much sugar floating around in the body can cause damage to blood vessels.
The combination of too many processed carbohydrates and damage to blood vessels can lead to heart disease. All of this to say that going completely low- or no-fat led to an increase in heart disease.
Types of Fat are Most Important
So, now we know that consuming some fat everyday is a good thing. But the trick is to be choosy about the types of fat we consume regularly. So, to get back to your question, olive oil is a healthy type of fat.
If we were to look at olive oil under a microscope, we would see that it is a type of monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats can also be found in other foods like avocado, nuts, and seeds. These types of fats tend to protect the health of our cells. Plus, olive oil has antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Some of the compounds found in olive oil can even positively influence the gut microbiome. This is because these compounds promote the growth of good bacteria in the intestines. These good bacteria may actually lead to changes in how we digest and absorb other fats and cholesterol in our diets. Some studies have even found that consuming olive oil may help lower cholesterol levels.
The Mediterranean Diet
Now, you mentioned the Mediterranean Diet and how it seems to promote more fat consumption than say, a whole food diet. You’re right – the Mediterranean Diet says to consume lots of vegetables, legumes, fruit, and whole grains each day, moderate consumption of fish and white meat (like on a weekly basis), a moderate intake of dairy products, monthly consumption of red meat, and, as you said, a relatively high amount of fat consumption – up to 40% of total energy intake each day.
Where should the majority of that fat come from? You guessed it: mostly from monounsaturated fatty acids, mainly olive oil.
Now, olive oil is still a fat so that means that it contains quite a few calories per serving. We would think that would mean that consuming that much olive oil each day would lead to weigh gain. But many studies have found the opposite effect. In fact, when people transition from a Western-type diet to a Mediterranean Diet, they tend to lose weight. They also tend to lower their risk of developing cardiovascular disease, certain forms of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and death from all causes.
The Bottom Line on Olive Oil
So, to sum up – you asked whether olive oil is healthy in moderation? Overwhelmingly, most studies point to yes. Now, before I end this, I wanted to provide some quick tips to buying quality olive oils.
I happened to be watching an older episode of the TV show, Shark Tank. A company selling their unique brand of olive oils was pitching their product and were describing how their product differed from all the rest. One of their selling points was that their product goes from farm to store really quickly. They said that you don’t want to buy old olive oil.
All of the “Investor Sharks” were shocked by this statement – they thought that olive oil was like a fine wine: the older, the better. Well, the Investor Sharks were WRONG. Older olive oils have probably become rancid. They may contain harmful compounds – compounds that may increase disease risk.
So, we want to buy the freshest olive oil possible. Older is not better. In fact, olive oil’s enemies are: light, heat, and air. Light, heat, and exposure to air increases the chances the oil will go rancid. So, first tip: be sure to purchase olive oil that’s sold in a dark bottle. A metal container works just as well, too. Either way, they help keep the light out.
Next, read the label. Be sure that there are no other oils added to the product. Then, when you bring it home, keep it in a dark place at room temperature. Do not keep it next to the stove or near a window.
Then, once you’ve opened the bottle, try to finish it within a few months. Because again, once you’ve exposed the oil to light and air, it’s going to deteriorate pretty quickly.